Blues uncover a No 9, Highlanders downed
On a balmy night at the Garden of Eden, the Blues may have stumbled across their preferred halves pairing in a clinical 30-12 victory over the Highlanders tonight.
With frequent watering and the right additives, nippy halfback Bryn Hall, 22, and composed first five-eighth Simon Hickey, 20, could grow into an extremely fruitful combination.
It seems like a harsh statement but it was hard not to think Piri Weepu may struggle to regain his spot.
Weepu's exit came through unfortunate circumstances - the former All Black suffering a minor stroke thanks to a hole in his heart - but his replacement made an immediate impression.
"The nine and 10 were really good tonight," Blues coach Sir John Kirwan said. "Simon is continuing his growth and playing with maturity and Bryn stepped straight into Piri's shoes, which was outstanding for him. It's been a testing week. Bryn has been stepping up the last few weeks and tonight he arrived."
On the back of a much-improved display from the forwards, Hall's snappy delivery and clear intent to play the game at pace through quick taps had the Blues on the front-foot from the outset. Not bad for a debut start.
Man of the match Hall noticeably lifted his side's tempo, produced some deft touches from the boot and controlled the point of attack nicely from the base.
After being stuck down with glandular fever and suffering a broken jaw last year, you got the sense he enjoyed every second.
To emphasise the point, Hall made a telling break just before half-time, selling a dummy from the lineout, only to be stopped millimetres short. Ma'a Nonu - with added grunt from Steven Luatua - barged his way over from the ensuing breakdown.
Nonu's strong ball carrying presence and one nice grubber kick into the visitor's corner highlighted his class.
In many ways this match revealed a difference in class.
The Blues, who led 17-9 at half-time, boasted seven past or present All Blacks in their run-on team, and had the luxury of handing Nonu and Jerome Kaino their first starts of the season. Comparatively, the Highlanders had just three.
The southerners, until now, had punched above their weight. Not even their usual aggression at the breakdown was evident tonight. They were completely outplayed and it was no surprise they were held tryless.
The Blues, meanwhile, combined brutal defence with patient attacking raids for their best performance of the season, one which lifted their campaign to a three win, three loss record to keep them in the hunt for a return to finals football.
Other than some issues securing the high ball and some minor ill-discipline issues - Lima Sopoaga kicked all the visitor's points - the 16,700 crowd had few reasons to complain, though they would have liked a bonus-point try.
Overall, though, this was certainly a major step up from the bumbling win over the woeful Cheetahs last week and it maintained their unbeaten home record, with Hickey kicking 15 points.
"We were solid across the park. It was a starting point for me. That needs to be our line in the sand and we need to keep building from here," Kirwan said. "They're a good attacking side so to keep them tryless was special."
Star recruit Benji Marshall's cameo wasn't a success, however. His three contributions all produced negative results. He had a kick charged, one wayward pass hit a Highlanders player and he put team-mates under pressure with another on the counter-attack. It was as though he was trying too hard.
Making his starting debut for the franchise, lock Hayden Triggs had a more enjoyable evening. The well-travelled lock will be pleased with his efforts. He was a key figure in a dramatically improved Blues lineout.
The victory was sealed early in the second spell when Charles Piutau ran around Ben Smith to score, summing up a forgettable contest for Jamie Joseph's men.
Blues 30 (George Moala, Ma'a Nonu, Charles Piutau tries; Simon Hickey 3 pens, 3 cons) Highlanders 12 (Lima Sopoaga 4 pens). HT: 17-9