Their 24-12 win at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin was a long time coming, as they had endured a run of five consecutive losses against fellow Kiwi opponents, relegating them to 14th place on the standings.
However, a couple of opportunistic tries to Shannon Frizell and Matt Faddes, both of which stemmed from intercepts, as well as a penalty try from a scrum five metres from the Blues’ tryline was enough to hand the home side the win, which is their first since their 36-31 victory over the Reds at the same venue on February 22.
It’s a result that means the Highlanders will lock away the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy for the seventh straight year, which will ease the pressure that was mounting on head coach Aaron Mauger, who didn’t shy away from expressing the pride he had of his side’s mental strength.
“[I’m] extremely proud,” he told RugbyPass.
“Proud of the resilience and fortitude of our team, not just tonight, but of over the last four or five weeks.
“It’s been challenging, but I think tonight’s performance is a reflection of how much our boys care about each other and how much they care about representing the Highlanders and the added privilege of playing for the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy.”
The same cannot be said for Blues head coach Leon MacDonald, whose side is now on a run of back-to-back losses after impressing with a four-match winning streak that catapulted them into a play-offs spot.
Now, the Auckland-based club are in danger of dropping out of the top eight, and MacDonald credited that to a string of individual errors as the visitors conceding 19 turnovers.
“We turned over a lot of ball, and we weren’t able to build phases, really,” he said.
“Through that, we weren’t able to apply pressure, for long periods of time, and, especially in the second half, we were playing a lot of rugby in our own half when weren’t able to get possession as well, so that was on the back of handling errors and giving them opportunities just to stay down and keep the squeeze on us.
“They played their game really well, and we didn’t cope with it.”
The Blues will have a week off next week before turning their focus to the lowly Brumbies in Canberra, while the Highlanders, who now sit in 11th spot, face a difficult trip to Tokyo to face an exciting Sunwolves outfit.
Although still placed last in the competition, they have proven to be difficult opposition at times through their enterprising play, as was seen in their close 29-23 loss to the Hurricanes on Friday.
It’s an assignment that Faddes, whose intercept try in the 56th-minute was his first of the season, is relishing, given the Sunwolves’ ties to Dunedin.
“We head over to Tokyo tomorrow, and we’ll play a bloody good Sunwolves team,” he said.
“They’re playing some outstanding footy, and it’s a game style we’ve all seen, there’s definitely a Jamie [Joseph] and Brownie [Tony Brown] influence in there, so the boys will be looking forward to getting over there and looking to carry on a bit of momentum, that’s for sure.”
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