Planet Rugby

Blues shut down the Highlanders

29th March 2014 08:19

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Three tries and an improved performance at the set-piece handed the Blues a physical 30-12 victory over the Highlanders at Eden Park.

Scrum issues for the Blues had been highlighted in the build-up as a weakness to be exploited by the Highlanders aggressive pack, but they more than held their own after a visit in the week from All Blacks scrum doctor Mike Cron.

Tries from George Moala, Ma'a Nonu and Charles Piutau, along with the fine kicking form of young number ten Simon Hickey, helped the Blues post an impressive advantage on the scoreboard.

Problems for the Highlanders in maintaining possession and warding off the threat of Luke Braid, Hayden Triggs and Jerome Kaino at the breakdown meant their attack just couldn't get going, solely relying on the boot of Liam Sopoaga for their points.

It was a deserved win for the Blues, whose pack worked tirelessly, but their start was a little fortuitous. Bryn Hall's clever kick deflected off Richard Buckman into grateful hands of Moala, who raced away into the far corner for the opening try.

Sopoaga continued his fine kicking form with a long-range strike to put the visitors on the board, before two further strikes had the Highlanders ahead for the first and last time.

His third penalty in particular, a shot from deep in the Blues' half on the angle, was a beauty from the 23-year-old.

Simon Hickey's goal-kicking was also on song as he landed his first penalty to restore the lead for the Blues to 10-9 - the Highlanders at times proving to be their own worst enemy.

Great breakdown work from Shane Christie won a crucial turnover deep in his own 22, only for Aaron Smith's clearance kick to fly into touch rather than into the Blues half for his wings to chase.

Instead the Blues scored their second try - Hall's burst taking him inches short of the try line, before Nonu did the hard yards to drive over against the team he played for in 2013.

Hickey's conversion was on target, as the Highlanders sweated over the fitness of Sopoaga following a nasty collision with Patrick Osborne. The fly-half recovered, with the Highlanders trailing 17-9 at half-time.

The Blues had come into the fixture with only a 66 percent success rate at the scrum, but their work in that area along with dominance at the breakdown was crucial in creating the platform to build a win.

Hickey and Sopoaga traded penalties after half-time as the Blues kept the Highlanders at arms length, the next score proving pivotal to the outcome of the match.

It fell the way of the Blues, Charles Piutau sliding his way over by getting past All Black colleague Ben Smith to go over in the corner for the hosts' third try.

With half an hour remaining it became a matter of whether the Blues could score the try bonus point, after Hickey's penalty had increased the lead to 30-12.

Hounded at the breakdown, the task of clawing back the 18-point deficit was always going to be too much of an ask for the Highlanders, who were denied a spectacular try for Buckman after a knock-on a few phases beforehand. It just wasn't their night.

The Blues might have won but there will be a lingering sense of frustration in their camp at having half an hour to secure the try bonus point, yet coming up short.

Nevertheless this was their most solid performance of the season to date, their third win of the season from six matches and revenge for losing in Round Two, as the Blues climb up the table.

The scorers:

For Blues:
Tries: Moala, Nonu, Piutau
Cons: Hickey 3
Pens: Hickey 3

For Highlanders:
Pens: Sopoaga 4

Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Jackson Willison, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 George Moala, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16 James Parsons, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Tom Donnelly, 20 Peter Saili, 21 Sonatane Takulua, 22 Pita Ahki, 23 Benji Marshall

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Ma'afu Fia, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Shaun Treeby.

Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

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