Highlanders outlast fast-finishing Blues

Highlanders outlast fast-finishing Blues

The Blues rolled out a new-look team but unfortunately it was the same old result as they were defeated 27-20 by the Highlanders at Eden Park tonight.
In the wake of a record loss to the Crusaders last week and an All Blacks training camp, Blues head coach Pat Lam made wholesale changes to his team, injecting some much needed enthusiasm and youthful energy into the side.
Benching three All Blacks in Ali Williams, Piri Weepu and Ma’a Nonu who boast more than 200 Test caps between them was a huge gamble, but for a while it looked to be paying off as livewire Francis Saili and Steven Luatua in particular had superb games.
But while there were bucket loads of enthusiasm, passion and enterprise from the ëBaby Blues’ as they have dubbed, once again a lack of accuracy and execution at crucial times crippled their chances of winning.
At 27-6 down, the Blues appeared to be heading towards another convincing defeat but they finished strongly to close within seven points of the Highlanders in the final three minutes.
Ali Williams came on early in the second half to play his 100th Super Rugby match and added some starch to a wobbling Blues lineout, while Ma’a Nonu also came off the pine and produced his finest performance in a Blues jersey with some barnstorming runs.
But the Highlanders, as they have done all season long, hung in there, wound down the clock and secured a penalty at the death as they kicked the ball high into the South Stand of Eden Park to condemn the home side to their 11th loss of the year.†
The Blues took the early lead through a Gareth Anscombe penalty kick after seven minutes but their promising start was littered with countless errors which gifted the Highlanders possession and territory.
They managed to hold out two five metre scrums from the Highlanders but ended up conceding a penalty which Chris Noakes duly slotted over to tie up the scores 20 minutes in.
With the Blues hot on attack and looking dangerous, a lost ball by Tony Woodcock was hacked ahead by Tamati Ellison, and with no-one at home the race was on between Hadleigh Parkes and Ben Smith to claim the loose ball.
Luckily Parkes pounced on it just metres from his own line, but as the Highlanders came piling in, Ellison managed to ground the ball over the tryline as it squirted out from the ruck for the opening try.
Anscombe narrowed the deficit with a penalty goal eight minutes from half time, but straight from the re-start Highlanders wing Kurt Baker sliced through some sloppy defence before offloading inside to Hosea Gear who barged over for an easy try.
The Highlanders wing made it a double just 30 seconds into the second half after finishing off a superb Ben Smith break, and Adam Thomson scored the easiest try of his career on the hour mark to push the score out to 27-6.
It was a farcical five pointer as hooker James Parsons over threw the ball from a five metre lineout which landed straight in the breadbasket of Thomson who just fell over the try line to score.
With All Black reinforcements coming off the bench, the Blues strung together their best 20 minutes of the match to score two well worked tries to props Tevita Mailau and Tony Woodcock.
But it was too little too late for the Blues as the Highlanders clung on to keep their hopes of a Super Rugby finals berth alive.
There are more injury concerns for Pat Lam, with star first five-eighths Gareth Anscombe limping off the field with a suspected high ankle sprain.
The Blues face the Chiefs at North Harbour Stadium on Saturday night.