RYAN VREDE reports on a 27-20 victory for the Highlanders where they held out after a Blues rally.
There was plenty of ambition but very little precision about either sides’ play which made for a scrappy affair that the Highlanders edged because of their technical and tactical superiority as well as the clinical finishing.
There can be no question that Landers’ attacking threat has been significantly diluted in the absence of Nasi Manu, and to lesser extent James Haskell. Manu, injured against the Bulls last week, has been a constant source of momentum at the gainline, while Haskell’s industry and competency when carrying had been central to their success.
The Highlanders’ attack looked laboured and impotent in the absence the gainline dominance they had become used to, and it was no surprise their opening two tries came from broken field situations – the first to Tamati Ellison after the ball had been hacked ahead following a turnover, while the second saw Kurt Baker break and offload to Hosea Gear.
It would be remiss not to credit the Blues for their stifling and stealing the at the breakdown. They hadn’t looked this combative since their win against the Bulls at Loftus. If they had limited their errors in general play (numerous in great attacking positions) and kicked more accurately – the latter which cost them a try just after the restart – they could well have snapped their losing streak.
The Highlanders lead 15-6 at the break but scored directly from a poor kick-off that exposed the defence on the left-hand side of the field. Fullback Ben Smith – outstanding throughout – fielded the kick and danced through the scattered line before dishing off to Gear for his second try.
The game drifted from one flawed passage of play to another, but the Blues were galvanised by Ma’a Nonu’s injection into the contest. The midfielder’s impact was immediate and he threatened every time he was in possession. But the optimism he conjured was short-lived – an overcooked lineout in the Blues’ 22m gifting the Highlanders the four-try bonus point and effectively sealing the result with 20 minutes to play.
The Blues rallied well, props Tevita Mailau and Tony Woodcock scoring converted tries to set up a tense finish. But the Highlanders held on, and the Blues will lament their imprecision at critical times.