The Highlanders are still winless in 2013 after going down 29-18 to the Blues at Eden Park on Friday, despite leading at half time.
The Highlanders are still winless in 2013 after going down 29-18 to the Blues at Eden Park on Friday, despite leading at half time and dominating large periods of play.
Blues scrum-half Piri Weepu scored two second-half tries as the home side pulled clear in the final quarter-final of a ding-dong battle.
The hosts eventually outscored their misfiring Kiwi rivals four tries to two to claim a vital bonus point to provisionally climb into the top half of the standings and move to second in the New Zealand conference.
The Highlanders leave empty handed and remain rooted to the bottom of the table.
The Highlanders led 13-12 at half time thanks to an early try from Ben Smith and a couple of penalties from Colin Slade.
In fact the visitors had raced to a 10-0 lead but Ma'a Nonu was sent to the sin bin for a shoulder charge and the Blues cashed in on their numerical advantage to score two tries in the space of nine minutes via flank Steven Luatua and prop Angus Ta'avao.
Despite massive dominance at scrum time and a long series of set pieces close the Blues' line, the Highlanders conspired to waste opportunities and were punished when Weepu crossed for his first touch down just before the hour mark.
Japanese scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka and Phil Burleigh came off the Highlanders bench and combined to send the latter over for a crucial score but Slade missed the conversion to leave the men in green trailing by a point at 19-18.
A penalty from Noake swung the momentum back the Blues' favour before some dazzling footwork from Rene Ranger set up Weepu's second try – as he had done for his team-mate's first – and sealed victory for the home side.
In a game were the TMO and ref Steve Walsh were heavily involved, proceedings came to an end with another controversial call as Walsh denied the Highlanders what would have been a bonus-point saving try for not playing the ball off the back of a maul on his command to “use it.”
For the Blues:
Tries: Luatua, Taavao, Weepu 2
Cons: Noakes 2, Kerr
Yellow card: Moala
For the Highlanders:
Tries: B Smith, Burleigh
Pens: Slade 2
Yellow cards: Nonu
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Jackson Willison, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (c), 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Francis Saili.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Buxton Popoalii, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 John Hardie, 6 Jarrad Hoeata, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Andrew Hore (c), 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Ma'afu Fia, 18 TJ Ioane, 19 Elliot Dixon, 20 Fumiaki Tanaka, 21 Lima Sopoaga, 22 Phil Burleigh.
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Jonathon White (New Zealand), Sheldon Eden-Whaitiri (New Zealand)
Television match official: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)