A Highlanders comeback has fallen short in a 32-25 loss in Dunedin to the Blues that consigned them to a fifth-straight Super Rugby Pacific loss this season.
A Highlanders comeback has fallen short in a 32-25 loss to the Blues in Dunedin that consigned them to a fifth-straight Super Rugby Pacific loss this season.
The winless hosts trailed 18-3 at halftime, despite the Blues losing All Blacks star Beauden Barrett to concussion.
They scored three second-half tries and were pushed into touch in the final minute attempting to cross for a fourth that would have offered a chance to tie the game with a sideline conversion.
Mosese Dawai was also judged to have knocked on as he attempted to level the scores with a try earlier in the second half, when the Highlanders enjoyed all the momentum.
"It was a ding-dong first half and I was really proud of our effort in the second half," Highlanders captain Aaron Smith said.
"It showed each other what we can do and how much belief there is.
"Rugby can be cruel sometimes and we're catching nothing at the moment ... there was probably a few things (that went against us) but a lot of it we can control."
The Blues were slick early then held on late, Barrett's replacement Stephen Perofeta's counter-attacking try with 14 minutes remaining pushing them ahead 32-18.
The victory, their second tight defeat of the Highlanders this season, moves the Blues (3-1) above the Western Force to sixth ahead of a Tuesday catch-up fixture against Moana Pasifika.
"We knew they'd throw the kitchen sink at us, we just dug deep for each other," Blues skipper Dalton Papalii said.
"Uncertainty around COVID and all that, we're with the boys more than our own families.
"It's a good thing; we're building something special and you're seeing it out there."
Barrett, 30, had only just returned following a concussion suffered in a Test against Ireland in November.
He was taken from the field in the 41st minute after a high-speed collision with hard-running Highlanders centre Fetuli Paea.
Forsyth Barr Stadium was typically raucous as more than 7500 enjoyed the return of crowds to New Zealand Super clashes.
Fullback Sam Gilbert scored twice for the Highlanders.
Highlanders 25 (Tries: Gilbert 2, Lienert-Brown, Cons: Hunt 2, Pens: Hunt 2) Blues 32 (Tries: Clarke, Barrett, Sotutu, Perofeta, Cons: Barrett, Perofeta 2, Pens: Barrett 2) HT: 6-18
HIGHLANDERS: 15 Sam Gilbert, 14 Ngatungane Punivai, 13 Fetuli Paea, 12 Scott Gregory, 11 Mosese Dawai, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Josh Dickson, 4 Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Dan Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 Ayden Johnstone, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Fabian Holland, 20 Hugh Renton, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Vilimoni Koroi, 23 Freedom Vahaakolo.
BLUES: 15 Zarn Sullivan, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Bryce Heem, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Sam Nock, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 James Tucker, 3 Marcel Renata, 2 Kurt Eklund, 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi.
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Jordan Lay, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Sam Darry, 20 Adrian Choat, 21 Taufa Funaki, 22 Corey Evans, 23 Stephen Perofeta.
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant referees: Paul Williams, Fraser Hannon