The Highlanders have kept their Super Rugby Aotearoa final hopes alive with a shock 35-29 win over the Blues in Dunedin on Friday.
The unfavourable hosts held and lost the lead four times throughout the first half before eventually pulling ahead in the second stanza in a victory that was only secured in the 75th minute.
Now sitting just one point astray from a grand final spot, the Highlanders need a win over the Hurricanes in a fortnight and other results to go their way to feature in the competition’s finale on May 8.
With all that in mind, here’s how they rated:
1. Ayden Johnstone – 7
Made a stupendous tackle on Caleb Clarke to stop the powerful All Blacks wing from cantering into the Highlanders’ half. Worked well with his tight five to lay a good platform at the scrum.
2. Ash Dixon – 7
Wore his hear ton his sleeve, as he always does for the Highlanders, and made himself a menace with ball in hand. Connected with each one of his lineout throws. Little to complain about his effort.
3. Siate Tokolahi – 6
Anchored the scrum well. Hard to fault in general as he got stuck into his work well, although there was nothing amazing to write home about.
4. Bryn Evans – 7.5
Dependable as per usual. Even at the age of 36, the two-test All Black is showing his worth as a valued member of the squad via his work at the lineout, scrummaging and on either side of the ball.
5. Josh Dickson – 7.5
Like his second row partner, Dickson was prominent throughout. Did well at the lineout, carried hard whenever he had the chance and defended well with 13 tackles to his name.
6. Shannon Frizell – 8.5
Got stuck in for the entirety of the match. Regardless of which side of the ball he was on, or if he was at the breakdown, Frizell was at the forefront of much of the action. Was partially responsible for stopping Akira Ioane over the tryline and then rocked Harry Plummer with a big tackle in the middle of the park to help earn a penalty. Was also a dependable option at the lineout and topped the tackle count with an eye-catching 21 tackles from 22 attempts.
7. Billy Harmon – 8
Like Frizell, was busy throughout. Was ever-present at the breakdown, snaffling a whopping four turnovers and making 13 tackles from 15 attempts. Outshone Dalton Papalii, who has come to prominence in recent weeks, which is no mean feat. Off in the 72nd minute.
8. Kazuki Himeno – 8.5
A well-taken turnover penalty inside the first three minutes, a feat he replicated further up the park on the stroke of half-time. Showed good strength to crash over from close over after 15 minutes. Off in the 50th minute for Marino Mikaele-Tu’u.
9. Aaron Smith – 9.5
Was unfortunate extreme to throw an intercepted pass right into the clutches of Jonathan Ruru from a lineout five metres from his own tryline. Was otherwise his spectacular best as he again proved himself as one of the world’s best halfbacks. Effectively set up Himeno’s try with a quick penalty tap. Actually set up Ngatungane Punvai’s try with a lovely inside ball. Showed wholehearted commitment to stop the Blues in their tracks from a Caleb Clarke linebreak in the 51st minute. Was constantly a thorn in the Blues’ backsides with his defensive efforts. Distribution, leadership and energy level were at a world-class level, as per usual. The Highlanders shouldn’t be counted out of contention of a place in the Super Rugby Aotearoa final as long as Smith is on the park. Off in the 76th minute for Kayne Hammington.
10. Mitch Hunt – 8
Good running line and quality distribution to set up Josh Ioane’s try. Those traits were further emphasised as he went on to pick up an impressive four try assists and was outstanding in his covering tackle effort to bring down a charging Caleb Clarke.
11. Jona Nareki – 7
Still yet to see him at his brilliant best as was seen against the Chiefs in Hamilton early last month, but kept the Blues on the back foot with his kicking game and was handed his try on a platter via a looping Hunt cut out ball.
12. Scott Gregory – 7.5
Hustled hard to chase down a Mitch Hunt chip kick to earn his side a penalty at the breakdown that resulted in an easy three points. Good distribution skills on show early in the match. Hobbled around the field towards the end of the match, and Tony Brown will hope he’s fit after the bye week as he looks to have found a home in the midfield.
13. Patelesio Tomkinson – 6.5
Guilty of rushing out of his defensive line too often, one time of which allowed Rieko Ioane to stroll on in for a try. Showed good variation on attack with an astute kicking game. High defensive output with 11 tackles from 13 attempts and two turnovers.
14. Ngatungane Punivai – 7.5
Probably his best performance as a Highlander. Was involved heavily on attack and finished off a clinical set piece move right on half-time in impressive fashion. Coming into form at the right end of the season. Off in the 60th minute for Michael Collins.
15. Josh Ioane – 8
Followed up his outstanding showing off the bench against the Chiefs last week by asking a multitude of questions of the visitors’ defence. Bagged a second try in as many matches off the back of a well-set scrum from close range. Brilliant try-saving tackle on Caleb Clarke early in the second half. Trusty off the tee. Only blight came in the opening stages of the game when a clearing kick was charged down near his own tryline. While he’s normally a first-five, his shift to fullback looks to be a masterstroke move by Tony Brown.
16. Liam Coltman – 6
On in the 57th minute. Reliable at the lineout and solid on defence.
17. Ethan de Groot – 7
On in the 53rd minute for Johnstone. Came on and instantly won scrum penalty up against All Blacks tighthead Nepo Laulala. Should really be starting for the Highlanders, such is the ability and potential of the 22-year-old Southland.
18. Josh Hohneck – 6.5
On in the 53rd minute for Tokolahi. Showed plenty of vigour on attack deep inside the Blues’ half. Bagged the match-sealing turnover in injury time.
19. Manaaki Selby-Rickit – N/A
On in the 72nd minute for Evans.
20. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u – 6.5
On in the 50th minute for Himeno. Made a good breakaway off the back of the scrum from well inside his own half and then showed some good vision to toe the ball ahead into open space.
21. Kayne Hammington – N/A
On in the 76th minute for Smith.
22. Michael Collins – 7
On in the 60th minute for Punivai. Ran a good line to score the match-sealing try late in the piece. His versatility off the bench is highly valued by the franchise.
23. James Lentjes – N/A
On in the 72nd minute for Harmon.
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