GARETH DUNCAN reports on the Highlanders’ 30-27 win over the Blues in Dunedin.
This loss against the Highlanders was the Blues’ fifth consecutive defeat and their sixth in seven fixtures this season. For the hosts, it was a crucial victory as they aim to follow through with their early momentum in the competition to secure a play-off place – which they failed to do in 2011.
But the win didn’t come easy for Jamie Joseph’s men.
The Highlanders edged ahead for a three-point advantage via a late try from replacement fullback Kurt Baker, who took advantage of poor ball marking by the Blues in their red zone. The pill was allowed to roll over the tryline by Rene Ranger and Baker dotted down before the wing. Replays showed that Baker pushed Ranger off the ball, but this was not picked up by the officials.
The Blues were then awarded a penalty in a kickable position – with only two minutes left on the clock. They had the chance of drawing the game with the shot at goal or to pursue the try for victory. The visitors decided to take the second option and kicked for touch. However, they were met by a resilient Highlanders defence, who easily restricted the Blues. They held on to their slim lead for the win.
The Highlanders will credit their ascendancy at the breakdown battle for this victory – on attack and defence. They were the dominant side in the scrap for possession at the tackle points, with strong counter-rucking and a resilient forwards presence giving them the upper hand. Flyhalf Mike Delany, who made a return after a season in Japan, added structure to the Highlanders’ backline play and boasted an accurate boot to convert seven of his nine goal attempts for a haul of 20 points.
The Blues lacked composure with ball in hand, but they showed some promise on attack. One of those came in the opening moments of the match as early pressure forced the Highlanders to commit a handling error. From that favourable field position, the visitors spread the ball across the park and stretched the opposition’s defence for fullback Hadleigh Parkes to find space out wide.
The Blues failed to capitalise on their early try, as the Highlanders hit back through a try by inside centre Shaun Treeby (thanks to a break by Hosea Gear) and a Delany conversion and penalty. Blues flyhalf Gareth Anscombe and Delany traded penalties as the Highlanders led 16-14 at the break.
The kicking contest continued in the second stanza as the Highlanders hung on to a 22-20 lead, before the Blues scored an impressive try via Ranger. Through patient build-up play from their heavies, Ranger was allowed to power through from close range.
The Blues have earned a reputation for their inability to close out the tight games this year, which was the case again in this fixture as the Highlanders fought back for victory after a Delany three-pointer and Baker’s try.
The Highlanders will celebrate their position in the top four, while the Blues struggle at the foot of the table. These are dark days for the Auckland franchise.