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Then winger Matt Faddes sealed victory with a sweetly timed intercept.
And with it the Highlanders kept their slim playoff prospects alive and retained the Gordon Hunter Memorial trophy with a 24-12 win against the Blues at Forsyth Barr Stadium tonight.
The visitors trailed 7-5 at the break but had spent most of the half camped inside Highlanders’ territory.
Only some great defence had denied them more than the single try they had to show for their dominance.
Ma’a Nonu had found a mismatch in midfield and sliced through. Impressive blindside flanker Tom Robinson loomed up on the left just in time to take the pass from Nonu and scored out wide.
The Highlanders could count themselves lucky to escape the opening 25 minutes just five points down.
They finally got into the game when Shannon Frizell drove through the middle of a ruck and thumped the ball down.
Josh Ioane converted to give the home side a 7-5 lead at the break.
It should have been at least 12-5 but winger Tevita Li dropped the ball with the short path to the try line clear.
In the end the fumble did not prove costly. The turning point came early in the second half when the Highlanders’ pack shunted the Blues backwards from a 5m scrum.
The referee awarded a penalty try. It was all the Highlanders after that.
Faddes showed astonishing vision to pick off a pass from Blues halfback Sam Nock and scampered 50m to score.
Ioane added a penalty to stretch the lead to 24-5 with about 15 minutes remaining.
Blues fullback Melani Nanai reeled in a superb cross kick from Harry Plummer to score a late consolation.