All Black Piri Weepu produced a masterclass of halfback play, scoring two tries as his Blues side inflicted more Vodacom Super Rugby pain on the Highlanders, winning 29-18.
The bonus-point win meant that the Highlanders – one of the pre-season picks because of their off-season purchases – are still the only side to languish without a victory in this year’s competition, with little prospect of their fortunes changing soon.
The Blues were superior in most facets, and Weepu’s performance by far overshadowed his battle with All Black incumbent Aaron Smith, with the veteran coming out on top as his team surged back from conceding an early 10 points to control the game.
Had their goalkicker Chris Noakes had a better night with the boot – he kicked three from six – they would have probably won by a bigger margin in the end and shut up shop a lot earlier.
Yet the Blues started slowly and poorly as they let a penalty and then an excellent try to Ben Smith – started by Hosea Gear – in to go down 10-0 in the opening minutes.
It took a game-changing moment, and a strange set of circumstances for referee Steve Walsh to give a yellow that brought the Blues into the ascendancy. All Black midfielder Ma’a Nonu smashed into Weepu at full tilt with a brutal shoulder charge, causing Walsh to award a penalty but nothing else. But after a tongue lashing from Blues captain Ali Williams, he changed his mind, and asked for the footage to be shown on the big screen, where he decided on the belated yellow. Nonu was lucky though, as the charge was intentional and could well have bridged the red card threshold.
With Nonu in the bin, it didn’t take the Blues long to surge back into the game, as first Steven Luatua went over in the corner before Angus Ta’avao went over from close range seven minutes later to take the score to 12-10.
A late penalty gave the Highlanders the lead at the break, but it was the last time they would be in front.
Early in the second half, the Blues were down to 14 men as George Moala was penalised for a massive tackle on Buxton Popoalii which was deemed by Walsh to be dangerous, even though Popoalii seemed to duck into the tackle.
The Blues held out for the 10 minutes without giving away any points, and then struck on the hour mark after some brilliant play by Rene Ranger, drawing the defence before feeding inside for Weepu to take the try-scoring pass and put the Blues back into the lead.
The Highlanders did threaten to make the game close a few minutes later as reserve scrumhalf Fumiaki Tanaka broke blind before sending Phil Burleigh away to score, but Colin Slade was unable to slot the sideline conversion, leaving the game at 19-18.
Noakes slotted a penalty to give the Blues some breathing room before Ranger and Weepu replayed their one-two to make the game sure for the home side.
The Highlanders came close to scoring twice in the end, and actually did go over the line, but Walsh had already called “use it” in the movement and blew the whistle before they went over, meaning there was no late bonus point for the visitors.
Blues – Tries: Steven Luatua, Angus Ta'avao, Piri Weepu (2), Phil Burleigh. Conversion: Chris Noakes (2), Baden Kerr. Penalty: Noakes
Highlanders – Try: Ben Smith. Conversion: Colin Slade. Penalties: Slade (2).