The same old problem of finishing a winning position continues to dog the Highlanders, after they fell 19-15 to the Blues on Friday.
The same old problem of finishing a winning position continues to dog the Highlanders, after they shipped two tries in five minutes to fall 19-15 to the Blues on Friday.
With the Highlanders leading 12-7 at the break and playing all of the rugby, a freakish try handed momentum back to the Blues but there was no disguising the way in which the hosts faded slowly from the game towards the end – excepting a frantic finale.
The Blues started more cohesively, focussing on some more simple aspects of their game, clearly in an attempt not to give away the penalties that crippled them last week against the Hurricanes.
The Highlanders started with more confidence, but that ebbed away as mistakes crept in, with a fair bit of over-elaboracy marking their play, never more apparent than when Jayden Hayward and Michael Hobbs ran into each other on the quarter-hour.
But the home team did settle into the game and the patterns once Israel Dagg had finished off a scorching try to cancel out Paul Williams' opener for the Blues, who fell into the same self-destructive pattern as last week and conceded far too many unnecessary penalties.
When Michael Hobbs ran in his third of the season shortly before the break, the flow of the game was pretty much all one way. Now would come the test of whether the Highlanders had got rid of last season's gremlins.
The game turned on a huge slice of luck for the Blues with a half-charge down of a kicked ball putting all the Blues onside. John Afoa took the ball and offloaded to Williams, then the full-back strode away from the dismayed chasers to plonk the ball under the posts and give his side back the lead. It took the Highlanders a long time to regain their poise, by which time the Blues had scored their third and Hobbs had missed a pair of sitters.
A frenetic opening which left you out of breath just watching it was punctuated by an excellent try from Williams, returning from a concussion suffered in the off-season. Rudi Wulf made the initial thrust into the Highlanders' 22, then Benson Stanley's long flat pass found Williams in space and he brushed off a poor tackle from James Paterson to finish in the corner. Stephen Brett converted.
Paterson made amends for his ineffective slide down Williams' legs just two minutes later, coming off his wing into the line and tearing through before finding Dagg on the overlap for the finish.
Despite Hobbs' conversion miss – he had an awful day with the boot, missing three out of four before Dagg took on kicking duties – the Highlanders' confidence visibly swelled with the score. Hobbs and Cowan used the boot to punishing measure and with all forms of Blues set piece under pressure, a second Highlanders score was inevitable.
It came from a Blues line-out fumble, seized upon by Donnelly and finished off by Hobbs who raced between ten and twelve for a simple score.
12-7 at the break and there was little in the early stages of the second half to suggest a turnaround, but then came that try.
Five minutes later, heavy Blues pressure on the Highlanders line was finished off by Rene Ranger out wide and Brett put the Blues seven clear.
Hobbs missed a sitter of a penalty after a break by Cowan, which did nothing for the home team's morale and although Dagg managed to land one on the hour mark, the tide had turned.
The Blues upped the pressure again and ought to have finished the game off with another series of rucks on the Highlanders' line, during one of which Josh Bekhuis gave away a penalty that also saw him sent to the bin.
Yet the Highlanders dug in and turned the ball over, setting up a nervy finale as caution was thrown to the wind. In the final play of the game the ball was swung wide to Fetu'u Vainikolo in space but he took his eye off the ball as it came to him and lost it forward. The comeback chance went with it.
Man of the match: Both Keven Mealamu and John Afoa had good games in the loose, but the set pieces struggled, so the award goes to Paul Williams, who rounded off a solid display at the back with two well-taken tries.
For the Blues:
Tries: Williams 2, Ranger
Cons: Brett 2
For the Highlanders:
Tries: Dagg, Hobbs
Highlanders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Jason Shoemark, 12 Jayden Hayward, 11 James Paterson, 10 Michael Hobbs, 9 Jimmy Cowan (c), 8 Steven Setephano, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Clint Newland, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Jason Macdonald, 17 Chris King, 18 Hayden Triggs, 19 John Hardie, 20 Sean Romans, 21 Robbie Robinson, 22 Fetu'u Vainikolo.
Blues: 15 Paul Williams, 14 Rudi Wulf, 13 Isaia Toeava, 12 Benson Stanley, 11 Joe Rokocoko, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Viliami Ma'afu, 7 Serge Lilo, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Anthony Boric, 4 Kurtis Haiu, 3 John Afoa, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Charlie Faumuina, 18 Filo Paulo, 19 Peter Saili, 20 Chris Smylie, 21 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 22 Rene Ranger.
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)