Blues too strong for Highlanders

Ash DIxon is hit by strong Blues defence. Photo: Getty Images
Ash DIxon is hit by strong Blues defence. Photo: Getty Images
In an inspired effort that mixed beauty with the beast, the Blues delivered their best performance of the season to claim the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy for the first time since 2012 and keep the Super Rugby Aotearoa title race alive for at least another week.

After a rather flat two-week period where they lost to the Hurricanes in Wellington and were fortunate to sneak past the Chiefs at Eden Park, the Blues clicked for large parts of their return match against the Highlanders.

Leon MacDonald's men have threatened without putting together the full package this season. Savouring pristine conditions under the Dunedin roof, this time the Blues showed how good they can be when all aspects come together.

The Blues' convincing bonus point victory propels them two points behind the Crusaders, who only need one win from their remaining two games to claim the inaugural title.

With the bye this week the Blues must sit and wait to see if the Highlanders can upset the Crusaders in Christchurch but, for now, they have done all they can.

While neutrals would love to witness a final-round decider at Eden Park, the Crusaders have one hand one the title and are intent on finishing the job this week.

Tries from the Blues on the stroke of halftime, and not long after the resumption, effectively killed off the Highlanders' hopes in this match. The southerners never stopped coming but, unlike their dramatic 24-point comeback in Hamilton two weeks ago, there would be no fairytale finish.

The Blues attitude to the collisions, to their kick chase and counter ruck, set the tone for their lethal backline to frequently flourish. Much of the highlight packages will showcase the brilliant attacking movements and offloads but the Blues forward pack deserves much of the plaudits.

While his goal kicking was off, Beauden Barrett grew in confidence in his second match back at No 10. His cross-field kick to find Caleb Clarke hit the mark early and when Barrett held the ball in two hands and challenged the line he posed major problems. He also delivered a classy skip ball to find Tony Lamborn for Finlay Christie's second try, before being replaced by Otere Black after 59 minutes.

Other than the final quarter, when they desperately defended their line after replacement prop Sione Mafileo copped a yellow card for team infringing, the Blues were dominant throughout with their ill-discipline the only factor which kept the Highlanders in the contest.

The visitors scored four first-half tries to lead 24-16 at halftime and had two more denied – one when Kurt Eklund freakishly placed the ball on Aaron Smith's foot. The other intercept runaway, claimed by Dalton Papalii, was unlucky not to be awarded after Smith milked a breakdown penalty by tripping on Karl Tu'inukuafe.

From an attacking perspective the Blues were on a different planet to the Highlanders. Clarke, the form wing in New Zealand right now, threatened every time he challenges the line. Clarke's size and speed regularly sucks in two defenders to bring him down and, even then, he often finds a way to pop offloads in contact.

Up front the Blues set the desired platform with their scrum in particular utterly dominant. Akira Ioane enjoyed a dream ride in the boot man role, scoring the first try while his scrum marched forward.

All Blacks prop Ofa Tuungafasi continued his supreme efforts in recent weeks by winning the breakdown turnover which led to TJ Faiane's try and claiming his own just before the break. Papalii led the aggressive approach to breakdown, while Patrick Tuipulotu epitomised the team's ball-carrying power.

The Highlanders enjoyed a brief period of respite midway through the first half when Ash Dixon struck through a lineout drive, but their attack struggled to fire after changes to the backline which brought Josh Ioane into first five-eighth, Michael Collins to centre and with Mitchell Hunt switching to fullback.

That the Highlanders scored their only points of the second half five minutes from time, through impressive blindside Shannon Frizell, sums up the defensive resilience the Blues delivered.

MacDonald should be well satisfied, if not slightly rueful his team could not put this performance together a few weeks ago.

Blues 32 (Finlay Christie 2, Akira Ioane, TJ Faiane, Ofa Tuungafasi tries; Beauden Barrett 2 cons, pen)
Highlanders 21 (Ash Dixon, Shannon Frizell tries; Josh Ioane con, 3 pens)
HT: 24-16

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