Highlanders retain Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy in Dunedin thriller video

Highlanders midfielder Malakai Fekitoa on the charge against the Blues in Dunedin on Saturday night.
DIANNE MANSON

Highlanders midfielder Malakai Fekitoa on the charge against the Blues in Dunedin on Saturday night.

It might not be enough to spark a party at Tony Brown's, but the Highlanders head coach was naturally upbeat after his team's thrilling win against the Blues in Dunedin on Saturday night. 

And so he should be. The 26-20 win marked their third on the trot and, more importantly, lifted them above the Blues and off the bottom of the New Zealand conference.

It also locked up the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy for at least another year, and ensured midfielder Sonny Bill Williams' Blues debut ended with a loss. 

Highlanders first-five eighth Marty Banks bangs a punt downfield against the Blues in Dunedin on Saturday night.
DIANNE MANSON/GETTY

Highlanders first-five eighth Marty Banks bangs a punt downfield against the Blues in Dunedin on Saturday night.

Williams, making his long-awaited return to rugby since rupturing his Achilles tendon during last year's Rio Olympics, was injected into the match in the 55th minute of the game.

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The big man didn't waste time dishing up a sweet offload in his first game of rugby since the 2015 World Cup final against the Wallabies, but it wasn't the Blues' night in the south. 

Blues winger Matt Duffie, left, comes down with a high ball despite heat from Highlanders winger Patrick Osborne.
DIANNE MANSON/GETTY

Blues winger Matt Duffie, left, comes down with a high ball despite heat from Highlanders winger Patrick Osborne.

Like their 16-12 loss to the Highlanders in an error-ridden eye-sore in Auckland last month, the Blues' hands let them down when they needed them most.

They had multiple chances in the second half, including a gilt-edged opportunity blown by Sam Prattley, who took a sharp Williams offload but inexplicably didn't pass to the two unmarked players outside him. 

Moments later, it was Williams who botched a raid inside the redzone after a limp pass found the turf and was hacked away by Highlanders pivot Marty Banks. 

Blues halfback  Augustine Pulu had another strong game on Saturday night.
DIANNE MANSON/GETTY

Blues halfback Augustine Pulu had another strong game on Saturday night.

As stellar as the home side's defensive effort was in the second half, Brown put the second half turnaround down to improved discipline.

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"Stop giving away penalties, was the first thing," Brown said when asked what he told his team after they jogged into the sheds 20-13 down at halftime. 

"The first thing we had to do was be a bit more disciplined and then just back ourselves and use the ball when we could. I think we did that really well in the second half."

Sonny-Bill Williams showed time out of the game had not dulled his off-loads.
Joe Allison

Sonny-Bill Williams showed time out of the game had not dulled his off-loads.

Unwanted by the Blues in 2014, Highlanders and All Blacks midfielder Malakai Fekitoa scored his fourth try in five games against the Blues to give his side the perfect start to the second half. 

The 46th minute try swung momentum their way in front of a rowdy crowd at Forsyth Barr Stadium.  

After nailing all eight shots at goal last week, Banks continued his fine form with the boot by landing another six off the tee, including penalty goals in the 55th and 73rd minute to create a six-point buffer. 

The Blues, who haven't won an away New Zealand derby since round two of the 2013 season (Hurricanes), will no doubt rue their inability to put two halves together.

Led by winger Matt Duffie, who took three brilliant bombs in the first four minutes of the match, the visitors had the Highlanders on the back foot for much of the first half. 

Duffie was also heavily involved in his team's first try, when he busted the Highlanders open out wide, before feeding Augustine Pulu inside.

Big prop Charlie Faumuina dived over a couple of phases later to give the Blues an early 7-3 lead. 

With next to no ball to their name, the Highlanders struck back just inside the half hour mark courtesy of Ben Smith. 

He touched down under the sticks from close range, but the movement started way back inside their own half after winger Patrick Osborne flicked a sensational ball behind his back to halfback Aaron Smith.

It would be hard to argue against Blues fans claiming it was forward, but referee Jamie Nutbrown allowed the frantic passage of play to continue. 

While Williams' return from injury got plenty of attention, perhaps Highlanders loose forward Liam Squire deserved more of it. 

In his first appearance since the Highlanders' round two loss to the Crusaders, Squire came off the bench and put together 32 minutes of brutal rugby. 

He hit ferociously, carried the ball with menace and no doubt lifted a pack which has punched above their weight all season, despite a barrage of injuries. 

"He's a beast," Brown said. "He's got no regards for his body and he's just one of those players you want on your team. 

"You don't want to be playing against him because he's coming for everyone. It's great to have him back and hopefully we can get some more minutes out of him in the future."

Highlanders 26 (Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa tries; Marty Banks 2 con, 4 pen) Blues 20  (Charlie Faumuina, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti tries; Piers Francis 2 con, 2 pen) HT: 13-20

 

 

 

 - Stuff

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