Indiscipline and another sleepy start killed the Highlanders as they succumbed 26-6 to the Blues in a feisty Super 14 rugby match at Auckland.
Just as they did against the Queensland Reds last week, the Highlanders found themselves a try down after 25 seconds but this time they couldn’t fight back, losing a match that leaves their semifinal hopes hanging by a thread.
The NZPA reports that the game exploded 20 minutes from the end when Highlanders captain Jimmy Cowan was sent off for a late shoulder charge on Blues first five-eighth Jimmy Gopperth. All Blacks halfback Cowan fought a running battle with Australian referee Stuart Dickinson all night, having earlier been sanctioned for stamping.
The Blues were deserved four tries-to-one winners, dominating every facet as they did in last week’s 36-12 thrashing of the Lions in a high-tempo performance that announces them as genuine contenders. They climb from sixth to second place before the remaining 10th round matches are played.
They kept the ball in hand all night, looking dangerous both out wide and when throwing inside passes.
They also offloaded strongly in the tackle and were only denied a greater winning margin try by a lack of finishing nous or some gritty Highlanders defence.
All Blacks prop Tony Woodcock saw out a sterling 80 minutes after a month sidelined by an ear infection, helping quell the expected southern challenge up front.
Young Highlanders fullback Israel Dagg produced another superb all-round display but few of his teammates shone on a night devoted mainly to defence.
Both sides went into the match at Eden Park with a four win-four loss record — the seventh-placed Highlanders having won their last three matches.
However, they weren’t in it from the moment menacing Blues second five-eighth Isaia Toeava doubled around winger Rudi Wulf to score in the corner as the crowd were settling into their seats.
Gopperth landed a sideline conversion and missed two penalties before scoring a spectacular try when he cut back and leapt like a gazelle over a ruck on the tryline
Up 14-3 inside 11 minutes, that remained the score at halftime as the Highlanders’ tightened their defensive screen, even while hooker David Hall spent time in the sinbin for a professional foul late in the first spell.
Blues flanker Josh Blackie appeared unlucky to be denied a try against his old team, with replays proving inconclusive for the third match official.
Blackie and fellow-loose forwards Jerome Kaino and Chris Lowrey were dominant figures throughout, helping the Blues perform with more authority at the breakdown than earlier in the season.
Visiting first five-eighth Matt Berquist landed his second penalty soon after halftime but Blues halfback Taniela Moa capped a muscular night with a try against a post.
Cowan’s red card virtually sealed the outcome but it took until the 78th minute before the hosts snared their bonus point via a long range try to winger Joe Rokocoko.
The Blues, who have now won seven out of eight home games against the Highlanders, travel across the bridge next week to host the Queensland Reds at Albany.
The Highlanders also have a winnable home match, against the Stormers.
Blues 26 (Isaia Toeava, Jimmy Gopperth, Taniela Moa, Joe Rokocoko tries; Jimmy Gopperth 3 con).
Highlanders 6 (Mathew Berquist 2 pen).Tweet