Umaga, Blues topple champion Highlanders

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Seven tries were scored in a match marked by wonderful offloads in the tackle, a high tempo on attack, and some crunching tackles.

But the difference between the two teams may have been the “Tana Factor”. The Blues have under-performed for years with Sir John Kirwan in charge, and the board eventually lost patience last year after the former champions won just three out of 16 games to end second-last on the log.

Umaga took over, and inspired the Blues to victory on Friday to lay down an immediate marker as a resurgent force in Super Rugby.

The Auckland team appeared to show greater fight than in previous seasons, as defending champions the Highlanders attacked relentlessly throughout the 80 minutes.

The likes of All Black stars Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Aaron Smith were constant threats, while flyhalf Lima Sopoaga kept things flowing with accurate passing and clever tactical kicks.

But the Blues never gave up, even though they were 24-20 down at halftime.

That was the tone of the game throughout, after Ben Smith opened the scoring in the ninth minute following a powerful surge by Highlanders No 8 Liam Squire.

Ten minutes later the Blues hit back with a brilliant try as flyhalf Ihaia West - who scored 18 points with three conversions and four penalties - executed a perfect cross-kick from near his own 22 for fullaback Lolangi Visinia, who had a perfect bounce to race away from the Highlanders defence.

He found right wing Melani Nanai on his inside, and the scores were level at 7-7.

The “hit-back” trend continued as impressive Blues scrumhalf Bryn Hall streaked up the middle and found space to send flank Blake Gibson away, and Gibson burst through a few tackles to go over.

But the Highlanders took charge just before halftime with two quick tries, the second of which was set up a terrific chip over a ruck by Aaron Smith, with the ball bouncing up for All Black flyer Waisake Naholo to leap above Hall to dot down.

West knocked over two penalties to give the Blues the lead after 62 minutes, but the turning point came when Highlanders wing Patrick Osborne was yellow-carded - perhaps harshly - for coming in from the side at a ruck.

It was near the halfway line, so the move wasn’t going to lead to a definite try to the Blues, so it was a big call to make by referee Ben O’Keeffe.

The Blues took full advantage as they kicked the penalty to within five metres of the tryline, and lock Patrick Tuipulotu eventually crashed over to give his side a nine-point lead after 72 minutes.

But two minutes later, Highlanders’ replacement pivot Hayden Parker missed a crucial penalty at goal that would’ve brought his team to within six points of the Blues.

That meant they still needed to score twice, and even an incredible late touchdown by Ben Smith - after a number of unbelievable offloads in the tackle - and a touchline conversion from Parker was not enough as the Blues closed out the game.

Points scorers:

Blues - Tries: Melani Nanai, Blake Gibson, Patrick Tuipulotu. Conversions: Ihaia West (3). Penalties: West (4).

Highlanders - Tries: Ben Smith (2), Teihorangi Walden, Waisake Naholo. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (3), Hayden Parker (1). Penalty: Sopoaga (1).

ashfak.mohamed@inl.co.za

@IndyCapeSport

Independent Media

Original source: Umaga, Blues topple champion Highlanders

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