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An outstanding Highlanders loose forward trio which combined to give the home side a stunning 35-29 win over the Blues at Forsyth Bar Stadium last night.
The Highlanders loose men of Shannon Frizell, Billy Harmon and Kazuki Himeno were simply fantastic in all they did, charging the ball up, supporting the ball carrier and not missing a tackle. They thoroughly outplayed their All Black opposites.
They were front and centre in a polished effort from the Highlanders, who took the physical approach to the Blues and more than matched them.
The Blues are a big, strong powerful side, but in the end they were bullied by a committed and dynamic Highlanders outfit who won all the key moments.
Frizell was all class and dominated his opposites, and Harmon was all around the field and tackled everything that moved, while Himeno was near-perfect on both attack and defence.
The Highlanders had led 22-17 at the break and went further ahead after a fine turnover from Harmon. He grabbed the ball when the Blues mucked up their own scrum.
After a couple of phases, a long pass from Mitch Hunt left winger Jona Nareki to run into the corner.
A Hunt penalty then extended the lead to 30-17 with just over 10 minutes left. The Blues came back and scored a try to Nepo Laulala to make it interesting in the final minutes.
But a high shoulder charge from replacement prop Alex Hodgman had him red-carded, and took the wind out of the Blues’ sails.
Others to impress for the Highlanders were winger Nareki, first five-eighth Hunt and hooker Ash Dixon. Prop Josh Hohneck made an impact when he came off the bench.
The Blues were first to score after five minutes when halfback Jono Ruru was standing at the end of the 5m lineout and showed jet speed to intercept a flat Aaron Smith pass to score.
The Highlanders, though, came back and grabbed a penalty through Josh Ioane, and on the quarter-hour mark got their first try.
Livewire halfback Smith took a quick tap, and when he was stopped on the line the ball went to No 8 Himeno who barged his way over.
The Highlanders kept smashing it up and were getting metres.
Just after the 20-minute mark, Blues No 8 Hoskins Sotutu was ruled to have kicked the ball while on the ground as the Highlanders pressed. He was yellow carded and from the resulting scrum, Ioane ran a great line to score.
The Blues came back though, first through a Rieko Ioane try and then an Otere Black penalty to go ahead.
But a peach of a try gave the Highlanders the halftime lead. A beautiful manipulation of the defence gave winger Ngane Punivai a 20m run to score as the Blues defence was well and truly sucked in hook, line and sinker.