Blues 33
Highlanders 31

Those watching this victory by the Blues over the defending champion Highlanders tonight might have thought new coach Tana Umaga was pinching himself as his side fought back for a sensational win.

Was it a dream? No, this was no happy coincidence; no fluke. While down 24-20 at halftime, his Blues outfit were still very much in this game. They were controlling possession and territory and even, shock horror, looked the fitter side, a completely different side to the one of 2015 under John Kirwan which won only three times.

They finished it deserved winners, a perfect start for Umaga and a poor one for his counterpart Jamie Joseph, whose team are going to have to get used to the new feeling of expectation as title holders.


As it happened: Blues v Highlanders

It was Umaga's decision to leave Rene Ranger and Charlie Faumuina on the bench and to bring them on eight minutes into the second half. The centre and prop, a former All Black and current All Black respectively, are genuine impact players and the excitement from the crowd of more than 21,000 was palpable as they ran on.

There was a feeling that anything was possible, and, as it turned out, it was. Ihaia West kicked two penalties to give his side a 26-24 lead, and, after Highlanders wing Patrick Osborne was yellow-carded with just under 10 minutes remaining for a ruck offence, a victim of his team sailing too close to the wind too often for referee Glen Jackson, the Blues were in charge.

Big lock Patrick Tuipulotu capitalised by scoring a converted try by the posts. The Highlanders, on the back foot for the entire second half, responded with a late try to Ben Smith, his second, but it was too late.

Umaga has some very good players and, playing within his tightly controlled structure, they were allowed to shine. Flanker Blake Gibson had a stunning game and scored a remarkable try in the first half when he ran over fullback Ben Smith, yes that Ben Smith, and outside backs Tevita Li, Melani Nanai and Lolagi Visinia played like men with new leases of life.

Ranger, a recipient of a dangerous neck throw in his first major game following neck surgery, ran hard and straight, as he does, and Faumuina was his usual busy self.

Former Kiwis and Queensland State of Origin league coach Graham Lowe is helping out with the Blues on an informal basis this year and a couple of days ago remarked about the atmosphere building within the squad. Here was proof positive. In past seasons there was a fragility about them but that certainly wasn't evident here.

The Blues should have taken a lead into halftime but for Waisake Naholo and Aaron Smith, the pair combining to put the Fijian over for a converted try which would have knocked the stuffing out of the home side.

They had responded well to Ben Smith's opener, with Nanai capitalising on West's superb kick pass and Visinia's chase.

Flanker Gibson virtually did it all himself for the Blues' second, breaking away and running over the top of All Black fullback Smith for a cushion, pushed out to 17-10 by West's penalty, but Teihorangi Walden's try closed the gap.

In the end, it didn't matter. The Blues are on the board and how.

Blues 33 (Melani Nanai, Blake Gibson, Patrick Tuipulotu tries; Ihaia West 3 cons, 4 pens).
Highlanders 31 (Ben Smith 2, Teihorangi Walden, Waisake Naholo tries; Lima Sopoaga 3 cons, pen, Hayden Parker con).
Halftime: Highlanders 24-20.

By Patrick McKendry at Eden Park