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 15,500-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 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 co-captain 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 reasons that's there is because we've worked hard on it, haven't taken things for granted and the leaders in our team have done a great job making sure the new guys understand what it is to play for the Highlanders, what type of people are down here and what type of rugby they will follow," a rapt Jamie Joseph said afterwards.
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 Nasi Manu acquitted themselves very well in the loose and Patrick Osborne and Malakai Fekitoa showed some much-needed X-factor in the home backline.
"I was really proud of those two guys," Joseph said of his All Black duo. "Everyone was stepping up for the first game, and our two All Blacks led by their performance. When that happens things tend to fall into place like they did for the first 40."
The Blues did well to battle back into the match after trailing 24-0 at the half, and won the second spell 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 first half cost us dearly," Kirwan said. "We turned over too much ball, played too much in our half, and when you do that and they score a couple of tries and get on top of you, it's just not the way we wanted to start. We came back in the second hald and I thought we deserved a point."
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,a former Blue, 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 it sparked the scarfie-dedicated Zoo stand into full party mode. The Blues had no answers early as they were inaccurate in almost all facets and bereft of ways to break the blue defensive wall.
The Blues mistakes kept coming. From one, an overthrown lineout, classy All Black Ben Smith punished the visitors right on halftime with a back-breaking try off a peach of an Aaron Smith flat pass, 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, the Blues had a sniff at 29-21, with 10 minutes remaining.
But the visitors could not add to their tally late and when Noakes fluffed a handy penalty on time, even the bonus point eluded Kirwan's visitors.
Brad Thorn was the only Highlanders casualty with a popped rib early on, while Blues skipper Luke Braid suffered a high ankle sprain. Benji Marshall played the last quarter and showed some nice touches to please his coach. "We chucked him out there to do exactly what he did - he started sparking us up, and he's going to be very good coming from the back."
Highlanders 29 (Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Ben Smith, Patrick Osborne tries; Lima Sopoaga pen, 3 cons) Blues 21 (Francis Saili, Angus Ta'avao, Patrick Tuipulotu tries; Chris Noakes 3 cons). HT: 24-0
- © Fairfax NZ News
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