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    Blues edge defending champion Highlanders

    2016-02-26 10:26

    Cape Town - The Blues put their hands up as 2016 Super Rugby contenders when they stunned the defending champion Highlanders 33-31 in Auckland on Friday. 

    The Blues had finished bottom of the New Zealand conference and second-bottom of the overall log last season, but their attacking intent and ability to hold onto the ball through the phases saw them emerge victorious in the 2016 season opener.

    It was the 2015 champions who drew first blood, and it was Ben Smith picking up where he left off last year as he crossed the whitewash in just the 8th minute after the visitors built on solid lineout ball before space opened up for the All Black fullback. 

    The Blues hit back just nine minutes later when right wing Melani Nanai rounded off an exciting counter attack that saw a chip kick over the Highlanders defence regathered by Loloagi Visinia, who put Nanai away. 

    A Lima Sopoaga penalty then gave the Highlanders a 10-7 lead, but the Blues had their second try when flank Blake Gibson crashed over from close distance to give the hosts the lead for the first time in the match. 

    Blues flyhalf Ihaia West then stretched the lead to 17-10 through a penalty of his own, but it was the Highlanders who finished the first half strongest with two tries - first through Teihorangi Walden and then Waisake Naholo, who did well to gather a chip from scrumhalf Aaron Smith. 

    Those two scores came either side of a West penalty, giving the Highlanders a 24-20 lead at the break. 

    The Blues were made to defend in the opening stages of the second period, and they just held on as Sopoaga missed a relatively easy penalty. 

    Once the Blues had settled, they began to look dangerous again and West narrowed the gap with a penalty from point-blank range as the Highlanders went into the final 20 minutes with a 24-23 lead.

    The Highlanders' ill-discipline the began to hurt them, and West made them pay with his fourth penalty of the match to put the Blues 26-24 ahead as the Eden Park crowd became increasingly vocal.

    Th Highlanders were made to soak up a lot of pressure in the last 20 minutes as the Blues bossed possession, and it took its toll with just 8 minutes to play when Patrick Tuipulotu scored what would prove to be the winner.

    The 14-man Highlanders gave themselves a glimmer of hope with three minutes to play when Smith finished a beautiful attacking move that started inside their own half, and when substitute Hayden Parker slotted the conversion from the touchline it was 33-31 with a minute to play.

    But it was too little too late as the new Blues era started in the best possible way.

    Scorers:

    Blues 33 (20)

    Tries: Melani Nanai, Blake Gibson, Patrick Tuipulotu

    Conversions: Ihaia West (3)

    Penalties: West (3)

    Highlanders 31 (24)

    Tries: Ben Smith (2), Teihorangi Walden, Waisake Naholo

    Comversions: Lima Sopoaga (3), Hayden Parker

    Penalties: Sopoaga

    Teams:

    Blues

    15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Male Sa’u, 12 George Moala, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Joe Edwards, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons (captain), 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi

    Substitutes: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Namatahi Waa, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 Rene Ranger

    Highlanders

    15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (co-captain), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown

    Substitutes: 16 Ash Dixon, 17  Brendon Edmonds, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Matt Faddes

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