The adversity kings have done it again.
The unfancied Highlanders, on the back of stunning games from All Blacks Aaron Smith and Shannon Frizell, have stunned the Blues 35-29 in Dunedin on Friday, dealing the Blues’ Super Rugby Aotearoa finals hopes a potentially significant blow.
Blues prop Alex Hodgman was deservedly sent off in the final 10 minutes for a wild high shot on James Lentjes, capping a poor night for the visitors and opening the door for Michael Collins’ game-sealing try.
The 13,379 fans at Forsyth Barr Stadium witnessed a pulsating game, full of momentum swings and talking points.
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The Highlanders had heroes everywhere, with co-captain Ash Dixon an absolute dynamo around the paddock, but Leon MacDonald will be bitterly disappointed with his Blues side.
In the face of staunch Highlanders resistance, the Blues became increasingly frustrated and discipline let them down on multiple occasions, even before Hodgman’s red card.
After trailing 22-17 at halftime, the All Blacks-stacked Blues had the Highlanders on the rack in the 10 minutes after the break, with power runners Caleb Clarke and Rieko Ioane rampant.
However, the Highlanders’ scramble defence was outstanding, with Josh Ioane and Mitch Hunt pulling off desperate, try-saving tackles on Clarke.
The Highlanders’ scrum then got to work, with replacement prop Ethan de Groot – who is beginning to look like an outstanding prospect – getting the better of All Black Nepo Laulala, and getting under his skin.
Jona Nareki was the eventual beneficiary of that scrum pressure, finishing off some sustained pressure to give the Highlanders at 27-17 lead after 58 minutes.
A Hunt penalty about 10 minutes later gave the Highlanders a 13-point buffer, and although that was cut to six when a fired-up Laulala powered over from close range, Hodgman’s moment of madness saw the Blues’ hopes of a win disappear.
The Highlanders got off to a shaky start. Inside the first minute, fullback Ioane took too long to clear the ball and was charged down by Blues No 7 Dalton Papalii, forcing the 5m scrum.
They were spared by a turnover penalty won by Kazuki Himeno but the Blues were the dominant side in the opening exchanges and soon opened the scoring.
From a Highlanders lineout close to their own line, Blues halfback Jonathan Ruru read the play perfectly and picked off Smith’s long pass to grab the opening try.
The Blues were forced to play almost the entire contest without captain Tom Robinson. The in-form No 6 sustained a nasty blow to the head in just the first minute and left with blood visible from the wound.
He was replaced by Akira Ioane, sporting a blue rinse this week, but the big All Blacks loose forward was unable to stop Himeno from close range after 17 minutes as the Highlanders upped the tempo of the game.
With Himeno, Shannon Frizell, Ash Dixon and Billy Harmon prominent – and All Blacks No 9 Smith enjoying his best game of the year – the Highlanders started to put the Blues under real pressure and they had a second try after 25 minutes.
nitially, it looked like Josh Dickson had blown the chance by knocking on close to the line, but replays identified a stray Blues boot as the culprit. Referee Brendon Pickerill deemed it deliberate and cynical and sent No 8 Hoskins Sotutu to the bin, to the dismay of new Blues captain TJ Faiane.
It then got worse for the visitors as Ioane ran a great line off Hunt to power over the line from a scrum move.
Momentum then swung the other way as the Blues’ big ball carriers created an opening for Otere Black to feed Rieko Ioane for the visitors’ second try after 32 minutes.
However, the Highlanders weren’t finished in the first half, and for the second time in two weeks they scored from a brilliant lineout move.
Bryn Evans won clean possession but just as it appeared Smith was going pass to Dixon, blindside wing Ngantungane Punivai ran a fine line inside the halfback and crashed over in the corner.
Ioane converted to give the Highlanders a 22-17 lead at the break.
Highlanders 35 (Kazuki Himeno, Josh Ioane, Ngantungane Punivai, Jona Nareki, Michael Collins tries, Josh Ioane 2 cons, pen, Mitch Hunt pen) Blues 29 (Jonathan Ruru, Rieko Ioane, Nepo Laulala, Hoskins Sotutu tries, Otere Black 3 cons, pen). HT: 22-17
MVP Points: 3 Aaron Smith 2 Shannon Frizell 1 Kazuki Himeno