Highlanders withstand storming Blues finish
Making the most of a stirring first half, the Highlanders withstood a Blues second half onslaught to claim a 30-24 win in the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy match in Dunedin on Saturday.
The Blues scored four tries to three but the damage was done in the first half when the home team got out to a 24-0 lead on the back of an indecisive Blues effort.
The first half demonstrated the differences between the two sides' seasons.
The Highlanders, polished, accomplished and determined while the Blues were confused, mistake-ridden and punished. But the second half was a different story, albeit too little too late with the only positive being two points from the game.
Former Aucklander Malakai Fekitoa feasted, scoring the first Highlanders try after 10 minutes when a kick into the box by halfback Jamison Gibson-Park was secured by the Highlanders with No.8 Nasi Manu setting wing Waisake Naholo off on a probing run with the perfect pass to Fekitoa on the sideline and he raced in to score.
Seventeen minutes into the game, Naholo ran hard at the line and as Kaino rolled him in the tackle the momentum saw Naholo touch the ball down over the line.
The Blues then had several scoring opportunities but butchered them all. After a lineout after a penalty, first five-eighths Daniel Bowden lobbed a crosskick to the goal-line with anyone of three Blues backs capable of scoring, except the ball bounced cruelly back into the field of play and the chance was lost.
Then another chance was lost when a long pass in the direction of wing Melani Nanai Vai bounced over the sideline.
Bowden put wing Frank Halai into space soon after and a great chance was set up only for a knock-on to be ruled.
Just to rub salt into the wound two minutes from half-time at a scrum penalty, Aaron Smith took a quick tap and Fekitoa burst through the defence to score and with first five-eighths Lima Sopoaga kicking every opportunity the Highlanders went to the break 24-0 up.
A different Blues team ran out for the second half with second five-eighths George Moala making the most of a hesitant start to the half by the Highlanders to score a fine try after two minutes.
Bringing on the heavy artillery from his bench, Sir John Kirwan had instant returns with prop Charlie Faumuina making a big impact with one sizzling run up the midfield. He also featured in the lead-up work to the side's second try which was scored by lock Patrick Tuipulotu who bullocked his way over the line.
The Highlanders looked to be hard done by when lock Joe Wheeler was sin-binned for a tip tackle, completed about 30cm above the ground on Kaino. Taking the lineout after a penalty kick, the Blues worked the ball from the line and it was replacement hooker Keven Mealamu who took the ball at the breakdown to score beneath the posts.
Three minutes from time, it was Mealamu who crossed again after the Blues opted for a tap penalty five metres out from the line. Kaino drove ahead and then from the ruck, replacement lock Hayden Triggs fed Mealamu over.
Flanker Akira Ioane demonstrated outstanding potential in the loose and lost nothing in comparison with his inspirational captain Jerome Kaino. Moala was a handful throughout for the Highlanders.
Highlanders flanker Elliott Dixon demonstrated why he has been such an outstanding performer for the side all season and was formidable for his side. Fekitoa and Naholo threatened to run riot but were more contained in the second half while first five-eighths Lima Sopoaga was a cool performer, especially when the Blues revival started.
Scorers: Highlanders 30 (Malakai Fekitoa 2, Waisake Naholo, tries; Lima Sopoaga 3 con, 3 pen) Blues 24 (George Moala, Patrick Tuipolotu, Keven Mealamu 2 tries; Daniel Bowden con; Ihaia West con). HT: 24-0