The Blues got their Super Rugby campaign off to a fine start when they beat the Highlanders 33-31 in Auckland on Friday.
The Highlanders are being widely tipped to retain their crown this season and they made a gallant attempt to continue where they left off last year, but it wasn’t to be, and although they outscored their hosts four tries to three, with two from Ben Smith, they won’t get a try-scoring bonus-point under the tournament’s new rules.
With it being the first match of the new, revamped tournament there were questions, in some quarters, whether the tournament would still provide the same level of entertainment from previous seasons.
Judging from this clash there’s little to worry about as there was plenty of that and more for the full 80 minutes.
Both sides deserve credit for making this the entertaining spectacle that it was, especially the Blues who seem rejuvenated under the guidance of new head coach Tana Umaga as he won his first game in charge.
The Highlanders were fastest out of the blocks and their enterprising play was rewarded in the eighth minute when Ben Smith ran on to a pass from Aaron Smith and burst through a hole in the Blues defence before diving over for the opening try.
The Blues didn’t wait long to respond and they were soon level when Melani Nanai rounded off a move which started inside his own half.
Ihaia West was the try’s architecht with a perfectly weighted chip kick which Tevita Li gathered close to the halfway line. He drew in the final defender before offloading to Nanai who got over for an easy try.
West and Lima Sopoga then traded penalties before Blake Gibson announced himself with a superb try. The flanker bashed his way through Ben Smith deep inside the Highlanders half before crashing over. West added the extras and soon made it 17-10 to the hosts with another three-pointer from the kicking tee.
The Highlanders didn’t panic, however, and showed why they are the champions when Ben Smith put Teihorangi Walden into the clear inside the Blues’ 22.
Walden then sold the cover defence an outrageous dummy before dotting down. West landed another penalty in the 37th minute before 2015’s top try-scorer Waisake Naholo left his stamp on this match with a well-taken try.
Aaron Smith spotted a hole in the Blues’ defence and launched a box kick which Naholo gathered from under the noses of two defenders before crossing the whitewash on the stroke of half-time.
The second half was more subdued and the opening quarter was a scrappy affair. The first points of the half came in the 57th minute via a penalty from West which meant the Highlanders led 24-23 going into the final quarter, but West then gave his team the lead five minutes later when he slotted another penalty.
The visitors suffered a setback ten minutes later when Patrick Osborne was yellow carded for cleaning out illegally at a ruck and the Blues made full use of their numerical advantage when Patrick Tuipulotu crashed over after his side opted to kick for a lineout from the penalty deep inside the Highlanders’ 22.
The champions didn’t surrender though and a flowing move – in which several players handled in the build-up – in the 78th minute was rounded off by Ben Smith in the corner close to full-time, but it wasn’t enough to secure victory.
BLUES – 33
Tries : Melani Nanai(17),Blake Gibson(25) Patrick Tuipulotu(71)
Penalties : Ihaia West(62, 57, 37 , 29)
Drops : None
Cons : Ihaia West(18 , 26, 72)
HIGHLANDERS – 31
Tries : Ben Smith(8 ,77),Teihorangi Walden(31),Waisake Naholo(38)
Penalties : Lima Sopoaga(21)
Drops : None
Cons : Lima Sopoaga(9 , 32 , 40) , Hayden Parker(78)
Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Male Sa’u, 12 George Moala, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Joe Edwards, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Namatahi Waa, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 Rene Ranger
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Matt Faddes
Date: Friday, February 26
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Paul Williams (New Zealand), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)