It's now 15 matches and counting since the Blues beat a New Zealand team – the numbers are cruel for Tana Umaga's men and they could get a lot worse yet.

This defeat to the Highlanders was no disgrace. The Blues had the better of it for long periods of the first half after a very poor start, but the margins are fine at this level and a few errors in execution swung the game firmly towards the Highlanders.

The visitors were cooler when they needed to score points and in Shannon Frizell they had a loose forward in red-hot form.

Frizell, the blindside flanker, scored three tries and his beautifully floated inside pass assisted halfback Kayne Hammington, starting ahead of All Black Aaron Smith, to the line in the second half. It was a remarkable performance from Frizell, a 24-year-old who plays for the Tasman Mako in the Mitre 10 Cup.

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There were flashes of brilliance from Rieko Ioane, and second-five TJ Faiane and centre Orbyn Leger were an aggressive midfield for the Blues but there was only one team in it in the second half.

It was an efficient enough victory for the Highlanders, who moved from seventh to fourth on the table. They had several tries gifted to them – most notably Dillon Hunt's in the first minute, and didn't need to do anything special to get across the line.

Replacement wing Taumua Manu scored with 10 minutes remaining for the Blues, but not even that could dislodge the Highlanders' bonus point and before that the home side's best chance of the second half came from a scrum 10m in front of the Highlanders' posts, but a poor no-look pass which sailed over the touchline put paid to that.

Such sloppiness in the opposition's red zone must have Umaga, a notoriously ruthless finisher, tearing his long locks out.

"Me going off my top isn't really going to help anything," Umaga said afterwards. "We've got some young guys in there doing their best and that's all we can ask. We educate during the week and for some it's a big education.

"They've been chucked in there and it's tough to try to download a lot of rugby knowledge in three days. We had a short turnaround. You could tell there was nervous energy there right from the start … which you could see when we gave up too many points.

"They came back, and that's the key thing for us – they keep coming back."

Unfortunately for the Blues, their other New Zealand conference games this season are home and away against both the Hurricanes and Crusaders, two of the better teams in the competition, so the winless streak could easily go to 19 by season's end.

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The Blues' first-half comeback was good. Halfback Jonathan Ruru powered over from close to narrow the gap and two Gatland penalties made it an 12-11 deficit.

And yet, they always looked like a team one missed tackle away from disaster and Frizell and Hammington were the main beneficiaries. For the Blues it was the same story with a doggedly familiar ending.

Highlanders 34 (Dillon Hunt, Shannon Frizell 3, Kayne Hammington tries; Lima Sopoaga 3 cons, pen)
Blues 16 (Jonathan Ruru, Tumua Manu tries; Bryn Gatland 2 pens)
Halftime: 20-11