Wing Patrick Osborne wrapped up the try bonus point just after half-time as the Highlanders stunned the Blues 29-21.
Wing Patrick Osborne wrapped up the try bonus point just after half-time as the Highlanders stunned the Blues 29-21 in Dunedin.
Benji Marshall made his Super Rugby debut at full-back as a replacement with 21 minutes left, but he could do little to change what was a comprehensive win for the previously written-off Highlanders.
Jamie Joseph's team of “no-names” burst out of the blocks and just never looked back, sharper in attack but also ferocious at the contact area and breakdown.
The Highlanders' prospects for this season had been scratched off before the game even started, but they bagged 14 points in the opening 14 minutes.
All Black scrum-half Aaron Smith charged down Chris Noakes and had enough speed to veer his way into the corner for the opening try, before good work from Liam Coltman at the breakdown created the turnover for the Highlanders to attack – Auckland centre Malakai Fekitoa finishing off a sensational score.
Solid defence from the hosts kept the Blues scoreless through the first quarter until Charles Piutau's up-and-under brought the visitors up to the five-metre line, only for the execution of the lineout to fail.
John Kirwan's side had been touted as Conference challengers for the Chiefs and Crusaders but the big men for the Highlanders – Jarrad Hoeata and Brad Thorn especially – were ferocious in defence.
Thorn, still rumbling on at 39, departed before half an hour was up due to a rib injury.
Line-out problems hindered the Blues' best efforts with James Parsons starting in the absence of Keven Mealamu, meaning that for all of their firepower out wide the Blues just couldn't establish a solid platform.
Aaron Smith nearly created a third try with a fine burst as the Highlanders went for the jugular before the break – Nasi Manu going off his feet two metres from the try line giving the Blues a much-needed reprieve.
There was still time though. An overthrown line-out from the Blues gave the hosts turnover ball and Ben Smith's run had the Highlanders surging forward again.
Five metres out a few phases later, he was there to take the pass from his namesake scrum-half and dive through a gap for the Highlanders' third try. 24-0 up at the break. The Blues faced a mountain.
They did grab a try back through Saili immediately after the interval but the Highlanders were on a mission, with Osborne crossing for the bonus-point try before 50 minutes were up on the clock.
Marshall entered the fray ahead of the final quarter as Angus Taavao-Matau crashed over to narrow the scoreboard to 29-14, giving the Blues the faintest of sniffs.
They lapped it up, a third try from another replacement in Patrick Tuipulotu starting to crank the pressure up on the hosts as Marshall's offload released Saili to start the attack.
That left the Highlanders with only an eight-point lead into the final ten minutes to keep them honest, as the Blues were left to worry over captain Luke Braid after he was helped from the field.
The Highlanders made twice as many tackles as the Blues and had pinned the visitors back in their 22 with time running out, until a scrum penalty handed them a chance as the siren sounded.
The Blues could have settled for a losing bonus point but Noakes missed the penalty despite a brighter finish for the Blues. But what a great start to the season for the Highlanders.
Tries: A.Smith, Fekitoa, B.Smith, Osborne
Cons: Sopoaga 3
Tries: Saili, Taavao-Matau, Tuipulotu
Cons: Noakes 3
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Liam Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias DiÃ¡z, 18 Craig Millar, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Jackson Willison, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Brendon O'Connor, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Benji Marshall, 23 Tevita Li
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Watt (New Zealand)