The Highlanders confounded critics and found the form they have been missing all season to down the Blues 38-28 in a highly entertaining New Zealand derby on Saturday.
The home side scored only their second win in the competition this season, while the Blues’ chances of making the Vodacom Super Rugby playoffs were seriously dented as they stayed outside the top six after a game they would have targeted for a victory.
It was a surreal start for the Highlanders, who surged to a 29-0 lead early on to grab their bonus point in a wonderful first half, then held on and didn’t cross the line at all in the second half as they ground out the win as the Blues came back at them.
The Blues managed to get a vital bonus point on fulltime, but will be more than disappointed with their play on the night.
But it is clear that the Auckland side were not on the right side of the referee all night, and were on the back foot after allowing the first try to Ben Smith which should have been called obstruction.
Smith burst through the middle of the ruck from five out, but the defence looked to be impeded by a Highlanders player on the wrong side of the ruck. However, the try was referred to the TMO, who gave his stamp of approval and despite Ali Williams’ protests, the try stood.
Colin Slade added a penalty to make it 10-0 before Tamati Ellison managed to go outside Rene Ranger and it was enough to get him across the line to add try No 2.
Smith came into the backline at the perfect point to score his second but the try of the game came a few minutes later as Hosea Gear beat four defenders by going inside and ran in almost untouched for a great try to grab the bonus point.
With 71% possession in the first half, it was no surprise that the Highlanders were dominating and that the Blues had to put in almost 100 tackles in the half.
But the tide slowly started to turn at the end of the half as Waisake Naholo saw an opening and chipped over the defence, who reacted badly. Naholo followed up and got a good bounce to run in untouched and put his side on the board just before the break.
Two more penalties from Colin Slade basically sealed the game for the Highlanders, but it didn’t stop the Blues from attacking as they finally started to put some phases together.
They finally got some reward as Ranger finished off a great midfield break by Luke Braid and followed it up with another from Steven Luatua to put them within sight of a bonus point.
Hayden Parker sealed the victory with a late penalty but there was more drama as Jamie McIntosh got a yellow for a swinging elbow, allowing the Blues to come back in the final seconds for Braid to make sure of the bonus point.
Highlanders - Tries: Ben Smith (2), Tamati Ellison, Hosea Gear. Conversions: Colin Slade (3). Penalties: Slade (3), Hayden Parker.
Blues - Tries: Waisale Nahole, Rene Ranger, Steven Luatua, Luke Braid. Conversions: Baden Kerr (4).