No one could be certain. Would the Blues find some sting to ease a four game losing streak, would the Highlanders show the venom they had before their bye?

Both sides would have answered the inquiries in the affirmative after an enthralling spirited contest which tested the minds and bodies of the officials and contestants.

The Blues ignored several close penalties which would have given them a draw in the last minutes as they pushed for scrums and lineouts to find the try and an elusive victory.

Instead the Highlanders set-piece held up, their defence claimed one more priceless turnover as they escaped with a rare win against the Blues.


They will set off for their trip to South Africa in a buoyant mood while the Blues have another forlorn voyage home and what will be another testing week of inquiry and recrimination.

It took some time for the Highlanders to get Mike Delany back to Dunedin but that trouble proved to be gold last night. Officials had to cut through rugby's red tape in Japan and agree to a few other details before the one-time All Black and Highlander returned to his old franchise and new rugby ground.

The 18,417 crowd did not mind the wait. Delany's first serious touch was a gem.

He ran across field from a scrum to drag the Blues' defence with him then popped a blind pass inside to find trailing wing Hosea Gear.

It was the sort of move a five-eighths would feel confident about after a season training with his mates. Instead Delany has only been back a few weeks to help fill out the injury crisis which has claimed Colin Slade and Lima Sopoaga for the Super 15 programme.

Chris Noakes helped out adequately but Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph was looking for an extra bit of class to sit outside rising young halfback star Aaron Smith.

Delany's reputation was still strong, those who'd seen him play in Japan reckoned he still had the ability but there remained uncertainty whether he could lift his levels to the furious physical pace of the Super 15.

The Blues shocked their hosts in the third minute when they made a mess of cleaning up some ball in their 22, Ma'a Nonu set a ruck, the ball went wide and new Blues' fullback Hadleigh Parkes dived over in the corner.

When Delany and Gear made their textbook move in the 12th minute to send Shaun Treeby to the line, this ninth round game looked like developing into a tryfest.

Instead the rest of the half became a penalty shootout between Delany and Gareth Anscombe as referee Bryce Lawrence carved out his decisions when both sets of forwards battled away for the breakdown and maul metres.

The Blues bit into the Highlanders' small lead as Anscombe kicked three penalties in succession though he missed another shot for the lead after halftime had been called.

The penalty pattern rolled on after the interval.

Then came what seemed to be an aberration in the match context. Rene Ranger scored a try when he ran into space off a short ball from replacement halfback Piri Weepu and lunged out to plant the ball across the line.

It was a terrific entree from Weepu who had just been brought on to inject some venom for the last 30 minutes. It was also a strong play from Ranger whose handling and lack of accuracy during the match was not his best.