Blues 27-24 Highlanders: Blues continue winning streak
Last Updated: 29/06/20 9:52am
The Blues won their third straight match in Super Rugby Aotearoa with a nail-biting 27-24 win over the Highlanders at Eden Park.
The hosts looked to be heading for a comfortable win after an excellent first half which Caleb Clarke, Dalton Papalii and Rieko Ioane all scored. However, the Highlanders came out firing in the second half and the Blues had to dig deep to secure the win.
Facing a side confident and on form, it was always going to be a difficult task for the Highlanders and it initially went to script as the hosts opened the scoring early on.
The try came from Clarke, the youngster dedicating his performance to his grandfather who had died an hour before kick-off.
The 21-year-old winger was magnificent in the opening period, touching down by weaving his way over from close range. The Highlanders responded via Ash Dixon's try before the respective fly-halves traded penalties, but the hosts soon asserted their authority when Scott Gregory's attempted clearance was charged down by Hoskins Sotutu.
It was an abysmal decision from the 21-year-old full-back, who took his time before deciding to kick, and it duly cost his side seven points. After Sotutu had blocked the punt, Papalii was on hand to claim and cross the whitewash for a 17-10 advantage.
Matters soon worsened for the visitors as the Blues scored their third try, and once again it was that man Clarke who made the decisive act. Receiving the ball just outside his own 22, the winger stepped his way past two would-be tacklers and found Ioane, who used his pace to finish.
With 12 points the difference at the break, it was a big job for Aaron Mauger and his coaches to inspire their teams, but their words evidently did the job as the Highlanders controlled the opening 10 minutes of the second half.
Mikaele Tu'u was magnificent while halfbacks Aaron Smith and Mitch Hunt controlled the game superbly. They may not have the star power in the outside backs that their North Island opponents do, but the 2015 Super Rugby winners played to their strengths.
They put pressure on the Blues and were rewarded when Hunt spotted a gap and surged his way over to reduce the arrears to 22-17.
Mauger's side continued to dominate and almost scored once more when Hunt's excellent pass saw Jeff Thwaites charge clear. The prop was stopped short but, under pressure, the Aucklanders infringed, and Rieko Ioane was sent to the sin-bin.
Down to 14 men, the Blues conceded for the second time in quick succession when Shannon Frizell touched down.
But the home side would hit back through another Highlanders error. Once again, Gregory was partially at fault, failing to take a high ball and allowing Leon MacDonald's charges to gain some much-needed territory.
They earned a five-metre lineout and Papalii was on hand off the back of the maul to cross the whitewash and regain their lead.
It was one they would not relinquish again, although the Blues were indebted to Sotutu, whose late defensive intervention five metres out secured the win.