Highlanders and Blues set NZ conference alight

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Friday, February 23, 2018    Getty Images

The Highlanders had to fight back from a halftime deficit to start Aaron Mauger’s coaching reign in winning fashion and made the most of Blues yellow card halfway through the second half to take the edge in a highly entertaining encounter.


The new ruck laws saw both teams act a little tentative at ruck time with very few turnovers effected. But the ball was recycled quickly which kept the tempo high and the game flowing.

Early season games are often marked by handling areas and regular re-starts, but there were no signs of rust as eight tries were scored in a high quality encounter.

It was the Blues who had the best of the frantic opening ten minutes but couldn’t put points on the board as they squandered a couple of opportunities close to the line. The Highlanders are a team that have made a habit of nailing most of their scoring opportunities and did just that when Lima Sopoaga knocked over a penalty to bring up the first points of the season.

It didn’t take long for the Blues to answer back when impressive young first five-eighth Bryn Gatland stepped through the flat Highlanders defence to make it 7-3 after 15 minutes.

Sensing a high-scoring encounter, the Highlanders turned down two easy shots at goal to attack the Blues line. The tactic paid off when centre Rob Thompson crashed over close to the line as the Blues defence was stretched wide.

The game showed no signs of slowing down as both teams crossed for classic tries within minutes of each other.

The first one was an offloading masterclass by the Blues. Sonny Bill Williams started it with a trademark no-look pass to wing Matt Duffie who offloaded back to Rieko Ioane. With two players closing in, Ioane palmed the ball back to Duffie who had a clear run to the line.

While the Blues try was all about individual brilliance and awareness, the Highlanders strike was a moment of set piece genius. With the ball looking like it was going wide, the Blues defence was left bamboozled as an inside ball changed the line of attack to Rob Thompson who ran 40 metres for his second try.

The Blues finished the half the stronger with a 10-point burst to take a well-deserved 24-17 lead into the break. 
The Highlanders lifted the tempo even higher in the second half with Aaron Smith leading the charge. Highlanders prop Siate Tokolahi barged over close to the line to square up the game before Akira Ioane had a double and the Blues were back in front.

In the 53rd minute, replacement Blues loose forward Antonio Kiri Kiri was yellow carded for a dangerous tackle close to the line. It proved to be a pivotal moment as Highlanders second five-eighth Tei Walden crossed for a double in the ten minute period Kiri Kiri was off the field.

The defence tightened up from both teams in the final 15 minutes as penalties were traded to make it 41-34. The Blues had one final opportunity to draw the game but the Highlanders defence held firm to take out the win.

The Blues have now not beaten a New Zealand opponent since round one 2016 while the Highlanders have their first opening round win since 2014.

Scorers: Highlanders 41 (Rob Thompson 2, Siate Tokolahi, Tei Walden 2 tries, Lima Sopoaga 4 con, pen, Fletcher Smith pen) Blues 34 (Matt Duffie, Akira Ioane 2 tries, Bryn Gatland try, 4 con, pen)
HT: 17-21