Highlanders dig deep for crucial win

Shannon Frizell reaches out to score a try for the at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday night.
Shannon Frizell reaches out to score a try for the at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday night.
Relief at last.

The Highlanders pushed all the doubt into the background in the lead-up to the Gordon Hunter Memorial against the Blues at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Saturday night.

With their season hanging in the balance following a run of five losses, and the critics lining up, the Highlanders had to find a way to win in front of a crowd of 14,186.

They showed belief early, with some tenacious defence in the opening 20 minutes.

The turning point came early in the second half when the Highlanders steamrolled the Blues' scrum to win a penalty try. And winger Matt Faddes helped clinch the 24-12 victory with a wonderfully timed intercept and 50m run to the line.

The positive result has kept the Highlanders' slim playoff prospects alive.

Coach Aaron Mauger praised his side's mental courage.

"It has been challenging," he said.

"But tonight's performance is a reflection ... of how much they care about representing the Highlanders.

"I'm really proud of the resilience and fortitude over the last month."

The Blues trailed 7-5 at the break, but could have slipped further behind on the hooter had winger Tevita Li not grassed a pass with the line open.

A bigger deficit would not have been a good reflection of the half.

The Blues spent a good portion of the period camped inside Highlanders' territory.

Ma'a Nonu created a mismatch in midfield and cut through. He offloaded to loose forward Tom Robinson to score in the corner.

The Highlanders' response came immediately. Shannon Frizell burst through a ruck and reached over to score.

The Highlanders' pack made a big statement early in the second half.

They shunted the Blues backwards from a 5m scrum and were rewarded when the referee awarded a penalty try.

"It was critical moment for us and something we nailed.

"But I thought we built towards that moment. We put ourselves in that position through good defence through looking after the ball.

"They are the opportunities we haven't taken over the last three or four weeks.

"It was nice to execute those big moments tonight."

Faddes' try fits neatly into that category. He showed great vision to pick off a pass from Blues halfback Sam Nock and sprint 50m to score.

The previous match he pulled up lame when en route to the try line against Canterbury. Not this time.

Josh Ioane added a penalty to stretch the lead to 24-5 with about 15 minutes remaining.

The Blues scored a late consolation try. Harry Plummer made a nice cross kick for Malani Nanai.

The loss means the Blues have extended their poor away record against New Zealand teams to 23 consecutive defeats.

Blues coach Leon MacDonald was at a loss to explain why it was so hard to win away from Auckland.

"We haven't played well away yet," he said.

"That is something we have to address as a group to find out why that is.

"At home we've been playing good rugby but haven't quite managed that away, so it is definitely something we can address."

In other games the Reds beat the Sharks in Durban 21-14, while the Brumbies also won in South Africa, toppling the Stormers 19-17.

In Sydney the Waratahs edged the Rebels 23-20.

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