Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: It's all blue for hapless Highlanders

Piri Weepu of the Blues makes a break during the round eight Super Rugby match between the Blues and the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images.
Piri Weepu of the Blues makes a break during the round eight Super Rugby match between the Blues and the Highlanders. Photo / Getty Images.

Blues 29
Highlanders 18

Strategic, calculated or fortunate.

None of those concepts mattered to the Blues, it was a 29-18 victory and relief after all the recent struggles.

The Blues and Highlanders stared down their demons tonight at Eden Park as a crowd of 16489 twitched with them on an apprehensive evening.

The merits of delivering a balance between style and substance are often debated in rugby. Those discussions were irrelevant for the Blues and their supporters.

All that counted after their recent ordeals was the white numbers on the electronic scoreboard.

For the anxious minds and frayed bodies of the players, this was a contest to define their season. If they believed they had an outside chance of making the playoffs, then victory was compulsory.

When referee Steve Walsh signalled the end of combat , the rot had been stemmed for the Blues while the turmoil will go on for at least another round for the Highlanders.

They began with some sting while the Blues were diffident. That uncertainty saw them miss a clutch of early tackles and create all sorts of pressure on their line.

Frank Halai came up with one superb spot tackle save to snuff out one move and Charles Piutau careered out of his 22 in a thrilling counter-attack until he dummied once too often, as he has done before this season, and was caught.

The defensive leaks told as Buxton Popoali'i danced his way towards the line for Ben Smith to regather and graze the whitewash with a desperate lunge.

All of the momentum was with the men in their green away strip until Ma'a Nonu clouted his old mate Piri Weepu high and without any arms.

The Blues could thank the ground replay technology for changing referee Walsh's original penalty-only decision.

As Nonu wandered away, the Blues struck with flanker Steven Luatua staying wide on the overlap to receive the pass and run to the line.

The blindside flanker looked to have claimed a double soon after but from the ensuing penalty, the Blues tapped and tighthead prop Angus Ta'avao ploughed over.

With the Highlanders back to their full crew, they swept downfield again but Hosea Gear's forward transfer to Smith ruled out the try.

They almost lost another player in the ensuing conversation as Walsh warned visiting captain Andrew Hore he was headed for the cooler with any repeat insults.

Indiscipline hurt the Highlanders' ability to apply pressure with the penalty count climbing against them as mistakes peppered both sides' attempts to shift possession.

It was more risky for the Blues though as they were pegged for long periods down by their 22. Several times you wanted to yell at them to hoof the ball into safer pastures.

But the coaching staff did not seem as interested in that scheme.

Coach John Kirwan wanted his men to hang onto possession to force the Highlanders into a lung busting chase and tackle schedule.

Perversely the Blues chased soon after the interval and George Moala's tackle concussed Popoali'i and the Blues wing went to the bin.

This was a crucial period as the Highlanders went to work with their numerical advantage.
They worked the Blues over in a succession of scrums.

Then Nonu had the ball stripped from his grasp by a flailing Chris Noakes as he smashed towards the line.

Waves of play fell over when Aaron Smith knocked on before Noakes took his time over a long distance penalty and although he missed, the sinbin had finished.

Magic interaction between Ali Williams and Rene Ranger brought a converted try for Piri Weepu as the Highlanders went into oxygen and player debt.

Substitute back Lima Sopoaga had to be replaced by No 8 Elliot Dixon but Phil Burleigh scored from long range as the match entered the last quarter.

That was time for the best try of the Blues season as they ran and offloaded brilliantly out of their 22 for Ranger to deliver the vital last pass and Weepu's second match winning try.

Blues ( Steven Luatua, AngusTa'avao, Piri Weepu 2, tries; Chris Noakes 2 con, pen, B Kerr con. )
Highlanders (Ben Smith, Phil Burleigh, tries; Colin Slade con, 2 pen ) Halftime: 13-12 Highlanders

- NZ Herald

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