Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Highlanders edge Blues in brilliant derby

HIGHLANDERS 26 BLUES 20

At least the Blues don't have to travel back to Auckland wondering whether they would have avoided defeat in Dunedin had they fired a few shots.

They can be certain they gave it plenty - that their intent, desire and hunger was all it needed to be in a contest that was ferocious and compelling.

But their execution wasn't there. Not when it mattered. Not when it needed to be. The Highlanders had them on that - the 2015 champions using their greater experience at this level to get the job done - to make those critical passes stick.

And most importantly, to use their defence as a weapon. There were some heroic individual performances from the Blues. Matt Duffie, Charlie Faumuina and Steven Luatua were all class.

But they were confronted with a collective defensive effort that was just brilliant. Liam Squire came off the bench and led the way in what was another brutal contest that made it easy to understand why New Zealand's players aren't thrilled at the prospect of being asked to play eight local derbies next year.

While the Blues and Highlanders were locked in their epic struggle, Sanzaar announced that tomorrow it will reveal all in regard to the future of Super Rugby.

The expectation is that the competition will be reduced to 15 teams for next year and the format will revert to the one that was in play between 2011 and 2015. That will see the New Zealand teams asked to play each other home and away, which is going to be demanding.

The Blues and Highlanders came into this game ranked four and five in the New Zealand conference but that, at the moment, almost equates to four and five in the overall competition.

It certainly looked like that. It was the pace of the game that set it apart.

That's so often the case with New Zealand derbies - they are played at this frenetic pace that doesn't relent. This was no exception.

It was 80 full-on minutes. Both teams were direct. Both teams were bold and both teams had a nicely weighted urgency about their work that alluded to the importance of the game in their respective seasons.

That edge never left the game and as the game wore on it started to manifest in more mistakes. Probably the Blues will feel they made more.

Maybe not errors as such but they lost their momentum and dominance that they had worked so hard to build in the first half. It wasn't as if their game fell apart, they just made a few key mistakes at crucial times.

They couldn't find the control they needed - especially at the lineout. There were a couple of overthrows and a few botched attempts to launch driving mauls and they had the dual effect of sucking confidence out of the Blues and breathing it back into the Highlanders.

Nothing screams vulnerability better than a wobbly set piece. It's always a bad sign that a team is either under prepared or feeling the pressure.

The Blues' problems may have started at the lineout, but they didn't end there. A general raggedness crept into their overall game in the second half and it killed them.

It would have been maddening for coach Tana Umaga to see his team work their way into a good spot only to blow it with an unforced error.

The worst example came when they failed to finish off a Sonny Bill Williams break and then 30 seconds later, with the line at their mercy, they ended up back under their posts thanks to a wild pass, watching Marty Banks kick a penalty.

It's hard to win games at this level without being patient. And it is even harder to win if the accuracy can't be sustained for the duration.

Highlanders 26 (B. Smith, M. Fekitoa tries; M. Banks 2 cons, 4 pens)
Blues 20 (C. Faumuina, G. Cowley-Tuioti tries; P. Francis cons, 2 pens)

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Stats provided by

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf03 at 30 May 2017 02:16:44 Processing Time: 660ms