Highlanders hold off Blues in thriller

Ash Dixon (left) and Ben Smith of the Highlanders with the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy after...
Ash Dixon (left) and Ben Smith of the Highlanders with the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy after defeating the Blues. Photo: Getty Images

The Highlanders have emerged on the right side of a high-scoring encounter in their Super Rugby season opener, beating the Blues 41-34 in a thrilling contest at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin tonight.

The middle of the second half proved the key period, as the hosts capitalised on the Blues being down to 14 men.

Blues replacement flanker Antonio Kirikiri was deemed to have tackled Lima Sopoaga high and was shown a yellow card.

The Highlanders made that advantage count immediately, as second five-eighth Tei Walden hit a gap after a change of direction at the breakdown to score under the posts.

Sopoaga converted to tie things up at 31-31, before the hosts took the lead not long after.

Rob Thompson scores in the corner for the Highlanders. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Rob Thompson scores in the corner for the Highlanders. Photo: Gregor Richardson

Rob Thompson put a chip through from a scrum, which Walden was able to regather and scored under the posts to grab his second.

The Blues hit back with a penalty, but the Highlanders answered almost straight away to restore the seven point gap.

Earlier, it had been a to-and-fro game.

The first half was an even affair for 30 minutes, but it was the Blues that finished stronger.

Sopoaga kicked a penalty to get things under way, before the Blues answered 15 minutes in.

Teihorangi Walden score a try in the tackle of Matt Duffie. Photo: Getty Images
Teihorangi Walden score a try in the tackle of Matt Duffie. Photo: Getty Images

Bryn Gatland stepped Walden and a lack of inside cover allowed the first five-eighth to saunter through a gap and score under the posts.

Five minutes later the Highlanders responded, bringing play left off a lineout for several phases, before switching right to allow Thompson to cross.

That made it 10-7, but the lead was once again short-lived, as a sublime offload from Rieko Ioane up the right wing allowed Matt Duffie to cruise in.

Thompson answered again five minutes later, hitting a great angle on a set-move close to the ruck 50m out.

He had the legs to give the Highlanders the lead back, but it was the Blues that took control of the half from that point on.

The visitors mounted an attack inside the Highlanders' 22.

Bryn Gatland dives over to score a try for the Blues. Photo: Getty Images
Bryn Gatland dives over to score a try for the Blues. Photo: Getty Images

While the defence initially soaked up the pressure, it was unable to stop Akira Ioane crashing over from the base of the scrum three minutes before halftime.

Gatland converted to make it 21-17, before an intercept pass after the siren gifted the Blues the ball back.

The defence ensured that did not result in a try, but a penalty several phases later saw Gatland add three points that should never have been conceded.

A packed zoo cheered on the Highlanders. Photo: Getty Images
A packed zoo cheered on the Highlanders. Photo: Getty Images

A strong start to the second half saw the Highlanders strike back straight away as Siate Tokolahi crashed over close to the ruck.

However, the Blues answered immediately after Michael Collins made a break up the left and linked with Akira Ioane, who ran in to score.

At that point the yellow card saw momentum swing the Highlanders' way, and the hosts rode the wave to claim their first victory of the season.

 

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