Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Highlanders hold on over Blues

Ben Smith of the Highlanders scores a try during the round two Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Blues. Photo / Getty Images.
Ben Smith of the Highlanders scores a try during the round two Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Blues. Photo / Getty Images.

Highlanders 29
Blues 21

Best forget about this one. Pretend it never happened and say the campaign starts at Eden Park this Friday. This was a Mulligan for the Blues - a duff drive off the first tee that they can discard and start counting proper as of now.

The final quarter, after all, was considerably better than the other three. There were signs of life and potential in those closing stages and for peace of mind, let's just believe that the Blues can start off their next game where they left of tonight.

The Blues got close enough to at least hint that there are better things to come. A scoreline that was in danger of being embarrassing at one point, went down to the wire.

To bolster the reasons for optimism, Benji Marshall entered the fray at fullback and had some lively touches. He pulled a few defenders this way and that and was eager to get his hands on the ball.

He wasn't the saviour - but he did contribute.

But before anyone gets carried away, this was a game against the Highlanders - a side, despite playing considerably better than all preseason predictions - who are not going to feature at the business end.

If only everyone could be so confident about the Blues' prospects: if only last night looked temporary and not so worryingly permanent.

All sorts of reasons get trotted out this time of year to explain underperformance but presumably fatigue can't be a serious one? Surely, so too can lack of motivation be eliminated.

The problem, it seemed, was that the Blues were a bit of a rabble. They didn't have enough direction or cohesion. They were loose, vague and a touch reticent. On top of that, their execution was mostly poor and all those factors combined to leave them chasing the game after less than half an hour.

It was eerily similar to their last visit to Dunedin, when they also found themselves blown away in disturbingly short order.

The Blues won't be able to make much, if any impression in this competition, if they continue with a wide-wide gameplan that isn't supported by trickery in the inside channels, venom at the cleanout and more dynamism and adventure from their decision-makers.

Too much of their rugby was passive: routine, by numbers stuff that the Highlanders could mop up with minimum fuss. Piri Weepu didn't pose any direct threat and it was pass-kick-pass-kick, with just about enough regularity to set a watch to.

Chris Noakes looked like someone who'd had limited rugby in preseason and it was all so tentative and back in the pocket that the gainline was almost a day trip. An out of sorts inside pairing are enough of a hinderance as it is, but the Blues' attacking game was hampered further by their lack of cohesion and ruthlessness at the tackled ball.

The support runners were a bit slow; too many bodies were poorly presented in contact and there were just too many instances cloven hooves accidentally booting good ball back to the Highlanders.

If it had all gone as it was supposed to, the idea of going from one touchline to the next probably would have stretched and broken the Highlanders. But of course, that didn't happen.

An excellent Highlanders defence swarmed the Blues, read their every move and seemingly won the ball back at their leisure. They scored their first two tries off those turnover opportunities and other bits of good fortune, but there is no way the difference between the two sides was luck. The Highlanders earned everything they got.

Aaron Smith was everything Weepu wasn't - lively, direct and creative. It was Smith who charged down Noakes' attempted clearance, gathered it and then dodged and scampered his way to the line.

It was a sweet moment for the All Black halfback given how poorly he played for the Highlanders last year and how bad he felt about it. There was also patience and composure in the lead up to their third and fourth tries.

They held their running lines, timed the passes well and created the space. It was simple stuff, but it was stuff the Blues weren't able to do much of.

Highlanders 29 (A. Smith, M. Fekitoa, B. Smith, P. Osborne tries; L. Sopoaga 3 cons, pen) Blues 21 (F. Saili, A. Ta'avao, P. Tuipulotu tries; C. Noakes 3 cons).

- Herald on Sunday

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