The Blues have opened the final weekend of the Super Rugby Pacific regular season with a 16-9 home win over the Highlanders that severely dented the visitors' playoff hopes and opened the door for three of their rivals.

The Blues had to grind out a victory which ensured them third place in the standings and a home quarter-final but fell short of the big win which would have given them a shot at overhauling the Crusaders in second.

Only skipper Patrick Tuipulotu managed to breach the steely Highlanders defence but that try, added to three penalties and a conversion from the boot of centre Harry Plummer, proved enough to prevail in an arm-wrestle of a contest.

The Highlanders were looking for a first victory over New Zealand opposition in 16 matches and needed a bonus-point win to be sure of a spot in the playoffs.

They drew first blood with a Sam Gilbert penalty, with the Blues not hitting the front until lock Tuipulotu barged over the line for the only try of the night just shy of the half-hour mark.

The Highlanders showed little attacking intent but staunch defence restricted the Blues to a 16-6 lead from halftime until Gilbert kicked his third penalty in the 79th minute to secure a losing bonus point.

"We gave it our best, we gave a lot of heart but we just couldn't quite finish it off," Highlanders captain Billy Harmon said.

The Highlanders, in eighth place coming into the final round, are one of five teams battling it out for the last two playoff spots.

Their final tally of 24 points means the Western Force (22), Fijian Drua (21) and Melbourne Rebels (21) all have an opportunity to overhaul them and move into the playoff spots with a win this weekend.



BLUES 16 (TRIES: Tuipulotu PENS: Plummer 3/3 CONS: Plummer 1/1)

HIGHLANDERS 9 (PENS: Gilbert 3/4)

BLUES (1-15): Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Ricky Riccitelli, Nepo Laulala, Patrick Tuipulotu (c), James Tucker, Tom Robinson, Anton Segner, Dalton Papalii, Finlay Christie, Harry Plummer, Caleb Clarke, Bryce Heem, Rieko Ioane, Mark Telea, Zarn Sullivan

RESERVES: Kurt Eklund, Jordan Lay, Marcel Renata, Rob Rush, Akira Ioane, Sam Nock, Stephen Perofeta, AJ Lam

HIGHLANDERS (1-15): Ethan de Groot, Andrew Makalio, Jermaine Ainsley, Pari Pari Parkinson, Max Hicks, Shannon Frizell, Billy Harmon (c), Hugh Renton, Aaron Smith, Freddie Burns, Jona Nareki, Sam Gilbert, Matt Whaanga, Scott Gregory, Mitch Hunt

RESERVES: Rhys Marshall, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Saula Ma’u, Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, Sean Withy, Folau Fakatava, Connor Garden-Bachop, Fetuli Paea

Referee: Ben O'Keeffe

Assistant Referees: Stu Curran, Jackson Henshaw