Who needs those Flash Harrys from the north? Not the Highlanders it would seem, as Jamie Joseph's unheralded southerners made a dream start to the new Super Rugby season tonight.
Under the roof of Dunedin's indoor stadium, and in front of a rowdy 15,000-strong crowd, the Highlanders ambushed Sir John Kirwan's Blues with a performance full of passion, intensity, commitment and no little razzle-dazzle. Just how the late Gordon Hunter would have wanted it for the trophy named in his honour.
In other words, the Highlanders showed all of the things that were sadly missing for most of their disappointing 2013 campaign where they won just three matches, despite their stellar cast of recruits from the north.
This year Joseph has just the two All Blacks - both Aaron Smith and Ben Smith were in sumptuous form tonight - and a squad mostly bereft of so-called star quality.
Who cares? They played as a team, they defended with both intensity and organisation, and they had a lash whenever they could to shade an entertaining and high-quality contest.
The Highlanders ran in four tries to three, and held off a late, surging comeback from the Blues, to secure not just a morale-boosting first-up victory, but a bonus point one as well.
As well as the two Smiths, former All Black Jarrad Hoeata had a storming display up front, Gareth Evans and Shane Christie acquitted themselves very well in the loose and Patrick Osborne and Malakai Fekitoa showed some much-needed X-factor in the home backline.
The Blues did well to battle back into the match after trailing 24-0 at the half, and won the second half 21-5 when their backs finally found some space. They'll take a lot from a storming second 40 but were quite atrocious in the first half when errors peppered their game.
The Highlanders' start was sensational as they burst out of the blocks with two quick tries, and a 17-0 lead in just a shade over a quarter of an hour.
All Black Aaron Smith had the first off a chargedown of a poor Chris Noakes attempted clearance and centre Fekitoa the second with a brilliant, jinking run from 50 metres out via Liam Coltman's turnover.
It was just the start this young Highlanders outfit needed and with the scarfie-dedicated Zoo stand in full party mode they were able to feed off some raucous home support.
By contrast the Blues had no answers. They were inaccurate in almost all facets and whenever they looked to shift ball, they found a blue wall that had no weak spots.
At halfback Smith had a brilliant first 40, highlighted when he blocked Noakes' slo-mo kick attempt and showed excellent skill and speed to gather and evade the clutches of the back-tracking Blues No 10.
Fekitoa's effort was even more impressive. The Blues were turned over at the tackle and the man Sir John Kirwan did not want burned his old team with a dazzling run from halfway.
The Blues did work their way into a few promising positions late in the half, but inevitably the mistakes came. From one, an overthrown lineout, classy All Black Ben Smith punished the visitors with a back-breaking try, off a peach of an Aaron Smith flat pass, right on halftime for a 24-0 lead.
Francis Saili got the Blues on the board in the opening minute of the second half with another piece of individual brilliance involving a run, kick and fabulous aerial regather, but Osborne's bonus point reply in the left corner nine minutes later restored the home side's advantage to 29-7.
Prop Angus Ta'avao powered over to get the Blues within 15 just inside the final quarter, and when replacement lock Patrick Tuipulotu thundered across soon after to finish a move created by Peter Saili's break, suddenly the Blues were back in it at 29-21, with 10 minutes remaining.
But the visitors could not add to their tally late and when Noakes missed a handy penalty on time, even the bonus point eluded Kirwan's visitors.
On a splendid night of entertaining rugby, honours very much to those unheralded men from the south.
- © Fairfax NZ News