Highlanders resist Blues comeback

Date published: April 18 2015

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An impressive first-half performance set the platform for the Highlanders to beat the Blues 30-24 in Dunedin on Saturday.

The Highlanders' sixth win from eight games this season keeps them in the hunt in the New Zealand Conference but they will regret missing the four-try bonus point that was well within their reach.

Three unanswered tries – including a double for Malakai Fekitoa – saw the home side lead 24-0 at the interval.

The second half was a very different story though as the Blues raised their intensity to score four tries of their own with Keven Mealamu touching down twice.

The Highlanders blitzed to a 17-0 lead inside the first quarter thanks to tries from former Blues players Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo.

The Blues conspired to fluff a few golden opportunities and when Fekitoa bagged his second before the break, things were looking bleak for the visitors.

But the Blues didn't lie down as tries from George Moala, Patrick Tuipulotu and Mealamu early in the second period kept the contest alive before Mealamu's second in the dying minutes set up a tense finish.

Unlike his opposite number Dan Bowden, who had a shocker from the tee, Lima Sopoaga had his kicking shoes on and opened the scoring early.

The Highlanders back three have set the benchmark for attacking play this season and Naholo was phenomenal once again, creating a try and scoring another in the first 20 minutes alone.

First he drew two defenders to put Fekitoa away for the opening try before showing he has plenty of power too, as Akira Ioane tried to bring the big wing down only for momentum to take them both over the line.

Sharp-shooting Sopoaga, who finished with a perfect record, added both conversions and the hosts were cruising at 17-0.

The Highlanders withstood a long period of pressure with some committed defending but the Blues will be wondering how they failed to score as twice massive overlaps did not produce any points. An unlucky bounce from an necessary cross-field kick and then a wayward pass let the hosts off the hook as the Blues' decision making and execution left much to be desired.

Fekitoa ensured his team had a huge lead going into half time as he split the Blues midfield apart with some impressive footwork after Aaron Smith took a quick tap. Sopoaga added the extras as the hooter sounded.

After being read the riot act by John Kirwan, the Blues started the second half breathing fire and Moala powered over soon after the restart.

Sopoaga added a penalty for the hosts but the Blues kept coming as Tuipulotu forced his way over after series of pick and drives.

Bowden missed both conversions though, meaning a comeback remained unlikely.

Highlanders lock Joe Wheeler was harshly sent to the bin for a dangerous tackle and the Blues immediately capitalised on the extra man as Mealamu muscled his way over from close range.

Bowden finally found the target with the conversion but Sopoaga's third penalty goal meant the Highlanders had a 13-point leading with 15 minutes left on the clock.

There was late drama though as Mealamu crashed over in the 77th minute and Ihaia West added the conversion to bring the men from Auckland with striking distance of victory.

It wasn't to be though and the Blues will have to settle for two well-deserved bonus points.

The scorers:

For Highlanders:
Tries: Fekitoa 2, Naholo
Cons: Sopoaga 3
Pens: Sopoaga 3
Yellow Card: Wheeler

For Blues:
Tries: Moala, Tuipulotu, Mealamu 2
Cons: Bowden, West

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Jason Emery, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Pingi Tala'apitaga, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Richard Buckman

Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Pita Ahki, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Dan Bowden, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Jerome Kaino (c), 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Tony Woodcock 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Jimmy Cowan, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Francis Saili.

Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Referee: Chris Pollock
Assistant referees: Ben O'Keeffe, Mike Lash
TMO: Vinny Munro

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