The Blues were beaten but not disgraced in Dunedin tonight, eventually losing 26-20 to the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
They started strongly, giving the traditionally kick-happy Highlanders some of their own medicine early, booting the ball long, high, and chasing down everything. Winger Matt Duffie once again showed his impressive aerial prowess, taking some truly brilliant catches.
Hotter on attack than their southern rivals and showing great continuity to string multiple phases together, the Blues were duly rewarded when Charlie Faumuina – whose penalty for being offside gave the home team first points on the board – rumbled over for the first try of the match in the 12th minute.
The visitors were unlucky to concede a try 15 minutes later, against the run of play. But a try to impressive young lock Gerard Cowley-Tuiti ensured the Blues were recognised for their first-half dominance, going into the break with a seven-point lead.
But whatever inspiration Highlanders coach Tony Brown gave his team in the break must have worked, because they came out roaring. The visitors defended heroically, seeing off multiple waves of attack from mere centimetres off their own line, before finally Malakai Fekitoa got over the line, after earlier being denied by Blues steel on defence and the TMO.
That tied the scores up, and Blues coach Tana Umaga started making changes not long after. Queue the long-awaited Blues debut of Sonny Bill Williams, in his first match since being side-lined by an achilles injury in August last year.
Sure enough, he showed his class when he threatened to bust the game right open for the Blues. Williams burst straight through a gap, stepped a defender and popped a lovely pass to Sam Prattley, just 10m out from the try line.
The ball eventually went loose and the opportunity was lost. Highlanders first-five Marty Banks kicked his second penalty since parity, and the Blues suddenly needed a converted try to win with less than 10 minutes to go.
Though they battle bravely to the end, it never came. And the cruel loss means the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy, the award the two sides play for in honour of the beloved former coach, remains in Dunedin for another year.
For now, it doesn’t get any easier for our team with a visit from the reigning champion Hurricanes to look forward to at Eden Park next weekend. Get your tickets here.
Highlanders 26 (Tries – B. Smith, Fekitoa; Conversions – Banks 2; Penalties – Banks 4)
Blues 20 (Tries – Faumuina, Cowley-Tuioti; Conversions – Francis 2; Penalties – Francis 2)