With just over a month to go, what’s felt like the most unpredictable Super Rugby season in ages will undoubtedly produce a few twists and turns yet, as we begin the run to the playoffs in earnest.
The Highlanders have broken a five-game losing streak by defeating the Auckland Blues 24-12 in the New Zealand derby.
Under the roof in Dunedin the Blues made one change for the clash, with Sione Mafileo beginning in the starting line-up and Ofa Tu’ungafasi assuming his place on the bench. The Highlanders brought Jackson Hemopo back into the starting line-up and co-captain Luke Whitelock came onto the bench. James Parsons started at hooker for the Auckland side, his 100th match in Super Rugby.
Both sides struggled for momentum in the opening encounters, with five penalties and a knock-on occurring inside the first 20 minutes. Much of the first quarter was played between each side’s 22 and neither side could mount a meaningful offensive.
Enter Ma’a Nonu. The 103 Test All Black sold a dummy and burst through the Highlanders defensive line. He made his way past the 22 before unleashing a pass to young flanker Tom Robinson, who slid in on the left-hand touchline. Otere Black was unable to add the extras, but the deadlock had been broken.
Just two minutes later, though, with the Blues camped inside their own half, scrum half Jonathan Ruru failed to hear referee Mike Fraser’s call that the ball was out of the ruck and as a consequence a Highlanders defender latched onto him. Ruru could only manage to slice the ball back into his in-goal, where, fortunately for the Blues, Caleb Clark beat two Highlanders players to ground the ball.
A five-metre scrum ensued and the Highlanders were determined to score some points of their own. The ball spilled out of a ruck and Shannon Frizell had quick enough reactions to pick it up and jump over the chalk to hand his side their first try of the night. Josh Ioane’s conversion gave the hosts a two-point lead with just over ten minutes until half-time.
With just over a minute left in the half, the Blues were hot on attack five metres from the Highlanders’ line. A rushed past from Ruru allowed Sio Tomkinson to pounce with an intercept. He was cut down by Melani Nanai, but not after running 50 metres downfield and getting his side out of trouble. And so the Highlanders went into the break up by 7-5.
The first ten minutes of the second half began much like the first. But the Highlanders were persistent and found themselves with a five-metre scrum after being held up over the line as adjudicated by referee Fraser with help from the television match official. After a few resets the Highlanders pack put a big shove on the Blues scrum, and when the Blues illegally stopped the Highlanders scoring from the back of the scrum the referee ran under the sticks and awarded a penalty try.
The momentum had shifted dramatically and the Highlanders looked to build. The Blues went about trying to close the now nine-point deficit, but they couldn’t chase down the elusive Matt Faddes. The right winger managed to rake in replacement scrum half Sam Nock’s pass and had a free run to the line right in front of ‘The Zoo’. Ioane’s kicking had been faultless all night, and he stretched the Highlanders lead to 16 in the 58th minute.
Ioane’s perfect night continued as he knocked over a penalty goal after Ofa Tu’ungafasi was pinged by the referee for not rolling away. Since half-time the Blues had struggled to get into the game due to the rock-solid Highlanders defence.
They eventually scored a late consolation try in the final minutes. Sam Nock scooted down the left-hand touchline before being taken high by Tevita Li. The Blues took a quick tap and Melani Nanai collected a cross-field kick to stroll in for the try. Harry Plummer converted the try, but it was too late for the Blues. The Highlanders secured a drought-breaking 24-12 victory.
It was a great all-round performance by the Highlanders, which gives them their first win in nearly two months. They travel to Tokyo next week for a clash against a Sunwolves side that continues to improve.
The Blues struggled to gain any momentum in the second half, managing only a late consolation try after the break. They have the bye next week before travelling to Canberra to take on the Brumbies.