Blues burst Highlanders' bubble

Date published: April 17 2009

The Highlanders' late surge for a Super 14 semi-final spot came to an end in Auckland on Friday in a 26-6 defeat to the rampant Blues in Auckland.

The Highlanders' late surge for a Super 14 semi-final spot came to an end in Auckland on Friday in a 26-6 defeat to the rampant Blues in Auckland.

In a compelling game, the Blues contrived to maintain their free-running game that has seen them top of the points-scoring table, while plugging the defensive leaks that have also seen them top of the points-conceding table.

The Highlanders fought gamely but just did not have the speed of reaction to cope with the waves of blue attacks which washed over them, especially early on in the game.

They did not get the rub of the green either, with Jimmy Cowan justifiably furious at several decisions which went against his team. They led to a continual tension between Cowan and referee Dickinson, which may very well have led to the red card meted out to Cowan on the hour mark for a late, no-arm hit on Jimmy Gopperth. It was a bad tackle, but was it really red-card worthy?

It may unfortunately end up as the major talking point of the game, but that would be a narrow-minded view of the game.

So here's a broader talking point: once again, two New Zealand teams were the ones lending an air of credibility to the ELVs. South African and Australian teams – the glaring exceptions being the Sharks and the Reds – have spent much of the season either running shapelessly, losing poorly or winning very very ugly yet, particularly in the case of Australia, have been the most vocal in their desperate support of the more controversial ELVs.

All five New Zealand teams have generally been spot on in their decision-making at free-kicks, support angles, offloading, running angles, depth and spirit; the New Zealand support of the ELVs has been far more laid-back.

Either they know something we don't, or they have shown the rest of the world how to cope with things out of their hands: keep quiet and play what's in front of you. This game was the perfect example, a fine advert for the ELV game.

For the second time in two weeks, the Highlanders fell behind to a try after less than 30 seconds.

The similarities to last week's catastrophic beginning did not end there. It was once again a failure to secure kick-off ball that cost them dear, once again an excellent backs move from the opposition that led to the try: Quick hands from Gopperth, an incisive angle from Rudi Wulf, a long wide pass to Isaia Toeava for the score, which Gopperth converted from the touchline.

Within two minutes the Highlanders had three points back through a penalty from Matt Berquist.

Discipline cost the visitors dear though. Cowan gave good field position away with a stamp seconds after referee Dickinson had whistled the man on the wrong side upon whom Cowan wreaked his wrath. Two minutes later, Alando Soakai was caught offside at a ruck.

Gopperth missed the first one, his kick for the second bounced off the upright and drove terror into the Highlanders defence. After nine more Blues phases, Gopperth dove NFL-style over a ruck to score (he also converted), while Cowan vented spleen on Dickinson for perceived earlier obstructions.

Cowan was at it with the verbals again near the half-hour, after Kurtis Haiu got away with murder at the back of a ruck – and almost came away with a smack round the chops from Thomson for his trouble – Cowan was again incensed when David Hall was sin-binned for slowing the ball down, a harsh call.

But there was the deteriorating relationship between Cowan and Dickinson. If Dickinson ended up being harsh on Cowan, it was ultimately the Highlanders' skipper's own doing.

Either way, the Blues were winning. It remained 14-3 until half-time, Berquist shortened the gap just after the break with a penalty, but Taniela Moa repaid his disciplinary debt to his side with a super try after 51 minutes, sniping through a gap and having the nous to push the ball against the base of the post in his way.

By the hour, the Blues had enjoyed 60 per cent of both possession and territory, but the Highlanders were threatening a comeback. Then ball was turned over, Gopperth went to kick from under his own posts and Cowan clattered into him with full intent. The red card ended the contest, but the Blues were without their bonus point.

That came two minutes from the end, Joe Rokocoko tearing down the right then popping up on the left to finish off the move two phases later.

Man of the match: The Blues set out to play an up-tempo game, running from deep. It's high-risk unless executed well and Jimmy Gopperth's service and direction were terrific. Add that to a smashing solo try and some great stuff from the tee, and you have a top-notch fly-half performance.

The scorers:

For the Blues:
Toeava, Gopperth, Moa, Rokocoko
Cons: Gopperth 3

For the Highlanders:
Berquist 2

Yellow card: Hall (26, Highlanders, slowing the ball down)

Red card: Cowan (60, Highlanders, late tackle

Blues: 15 Paul Williams, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Anthony Tuitavake, 12 Isaia Toeava, 11 Rudi Wulf, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Taniela Moa, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Josh Blackie, 6 Chris Lowrey, 5 Anthony Boric, 4 Kurtis Haiu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Tony Woodcock/Tevita Mailau. Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Tevita Mailau/James Afoa, 18 Jay Williams, 19 Peter Saili, 20 Grayson Hart, 21 Michael Hobbs, 22 Rene Ranger.

Highlanders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Jason Shoemark, 12 Daniel Bowden, 11 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 10 Mathew Berquist, 9 Jimmy Cowan (c), 8 George Naoupu, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Clint Newland, 2 David Hall, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Jason Rutledge, 17 Chris King, 18 Hayden Triggs, 19 Steven Setephano, 20 Sean Romans, 21 Johnny Leota, 22 Kendrick Lynn.

Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)
Touch judges: Vinny Munro(New Zealand), Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Television match official: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Assessor: Glen Wahlstrom (New Zealand)