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Blues produce second half fightback to keep Highlanders winless

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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Talk about a game of two halves.

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After stunning the Blues with kicking masterclass in the first half, the Highlanders were pumped in the second half as the hosts scored 22 points to claim a 32-20 Super Rugby Pacific comeback win at North Harbour Stadium in Albany.

The result leaves the Highlanders winless four rounds into the new season, and they could well have got the proverbial monkey off their back had they maintained their strong start to the match throughout the course of the whole 80 minutes.

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Convincing off the boot in a dominant opening half, the Highlanders left the Blues were left red-faced by their opponents when wing Caleb Clarke squandered a golden chance to take an early lead.

After having broken the line and burst towards the tryline, it seemed harder for the five-test All Black not to score than to score,

That’s exactly what happened, though, when Highlanders captain Aaron Smith somehow dislodged the ball from Clarke’s grasp with an all-or-nothing tackle that kept the scoreline untouched.

Perhaps that was indicative of how the remainder of the first half would pan out for the visitors, whose kick-heavy tactics managed to keep the Blues out of their own half for much of the opening stanza.

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The Blues, on the other hand, couldn’t match the Highlanders from the boot, constantly wasting possession with aimless kicking that either didn’t put their opponents under pressure, or relieved them of any pressure they might have otherwise been under.

The hosts were eventually made to pay for it when some strong work up front by the away side’s forward pack squeezed a penalty try and yellow card out of Luke Romano.

Mitch Hunt’s two penalties outnumbered the sole three-pointer scored by Stephen Perofeta, who was rushed into the starting lineup in place of Beauden Barrett following the late Covid outbreak in the Blues camp.

That led to a 13-3 scoreline in favour of the Highlanders at the break, but it could well have been more if the southerners made more of Thomas Umaga-Jensen’s threatening line break midway through the first half.

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Drawing in three defenders, the highly-promising and powerful midfielder managed to flick an offload into the clutches of Scott Gregory, and had it not been for the frantic defence of the Blues, the half-time deficit may well have been more than 10 points.

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That run by Umaga-Jensen proved to be his most meaningful contribution to the match as he was subbed 10 minutes before half-time, seemingly due to injury as he received what looked to be medical attention on his knee shortly after his departure.

The Highlanders could have done with his services in the second half, when they began to fall away after being caught napping by an urgent Blues side, who capitalised on their blistering start to send Taine Plumtree in for his first-ever Super Rugby try.

That’s where the Blues’ second half onslaught began, as with a renewed sense of purpose and intent, they pressured Gregory into a half-baked clearance that went straight down the throat of Zarn Sullivan.

The young fullback helped set Mark Telea free for an electric run through the heart of the defence to set Plumtree up for a second try in just a handful of minutes.

Sullivan’s long range goal-kicking inflicted further salt into the wound, and within 15 minutes, a 13-3 deficit had turned into a 20-13 lead for the Blues.

Things went from bad to worse for the Highlanders when Rieko Ioane sailed over for a try of his own following some good kick-chase work by Telea and a powerful surge up the right-hand flank by Bryce Heem with 15 minutes to play.

Facing an uphill battle to turn their second half collapse into an unlikely victory, the Highlanders were lucky not to have conceded a fourth try on the bounce after Sullivan charged upfield but couldn’t link up with Heem due to interference from Smith.

The Highlanders can be thankful for their captain’s work rate, as that enabled them to stay within touching distance when Shannon Frizell powered over for his first try of the season with little more than six minutes to play.

That glimpse of hope was as close as the Highlanders got to their first victory of the year, though, as the Blues hung tight and held out, with Perofeta providing the icing on the cake with a late match-sealing try from close range.

Blues 32 (Tries to Taine Plumtree (2), Rieko Ioane, Stephen Perofeta; 3 conversions and penalty to Perofeta, penalty to Zarn Sullivan)

Highlanders 20 (Try to Shannon Frizell, penalty try; conversion and 2 penalties to Mitch Hunt)

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