Highlanders in box seat for home final

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12 Jun 2015
Highlanders in box seat for home final

The Highlanders clinically disposed of the Blues 44-7 at Eden Park to put themselves in prime position to host a Super Rugby Qualifier in Dunedin next week.

Captain Ben Smith rounded off the match with his side's seventh try in a ruthless performance against their alarmingly weak opponents.

Jamie Joseph's side came into Friday's game knowing that a bonus-point win would pile the pressure on the Chiefs as the two sides battle for a home draw in next week's Qualifiers.

The Blues had no answers for the hard-work and determination of the Highlanders, whose unsung heroes were the ones this week to get on the scoresheet early on before Patrick Osborne secured the bonus-point try with half an hour to go.

They now sit on 53 points with 11 wins and a points difference of 117, which is 36 better than the Chiefs ahead of their game with the Hurricanes on Saturday. It's a huge order for Dave Rennie's team to surpass that figure, especially as they're playing against the best side in the competition.

With their two excellent All Blacks back in the starting XV in Aaron and Ben Smith, the Highlanders had their shape back following last week's heavy loss to the Hurricanes.

This was a poor send-off for a Blues legend in Keven Mealamu with the great hooker on the end of a hammering in his 175th and final appearance for the side. Everyone in Eden Park though was on their feet as Mealamu recieved an outstanding ovation when he departed after 45 minutes.

However, 2015 has a been a miserable year in Blues rugby history and their skills levels at times were far below standard. This shocking performance only put more pressure on the future of John Kirwan.

The hosts were unable to stop the Highlanders rolling maul early on as John Hardie crashed over on the back of an unstoppable drive. 

It wasn't all plain sailing for the Highlanders early on though, with tighthead prop Josh Hohneck shown a yellow card after 20 minutes for a no-arms tackle.

Ihaia West, whose kicking has been excellent this season, couldn't convert the penalty before Lolagi Visinia, a late replacement at full-back for Charles Piutau, was punished for a kick going out on the full when the Highlanders grabbed their second try.

Shaun Treeby managed to reach out of the tackle and place the ball on the line after running on to Aaron Smith's short ball, with Sopoaga again missing the conversion.

The flyhalf found his radar with a penalty not long after to make it 13-0 before the visitors ended the half on a high note, Elliot Dixon securing try number three.

Working off the power of their scrum the flanker broke down the blindside and was adjudged by the TMO to have applied enough pressure when placing the ball for the try to be awarded. Sopoaga's conversion gave the Highlanders a 20-0 half-time lead.

The Blues flung on their substitutes in a desperate bid to change the tide but as Mealamu departed the Highlanders pressed on, Osborne scoring out on the wing after some sharp hands from Sopoaga to bring up the bonus point try.

With that landmark achieved the Highlanders didn't slow down as Dan Pryor raced over after a clever switch in the attack from left to right left the clueless Blues defence all at sea, with Sopoaga's conversion taking the score to 34-0.

Hard-working second row Joe Latta got in on the act with a score off the back of a rolling maul, the Highlanders' sixth try, before Matt McGahan ran in a consolation score for the Blues to ensure they at least would finish with something on the scoreboard.

A negative for the Highlanders was the departure of Waisake Naholo to what appeared to be an arm injury, with the winger's progress no doubt being carefully monitored after the impact he's made this season for the team.

There was still time for some magic - Ben Smith on the end of a superb score as Sopoaga chipped to Osborne on the wing before the giant winger leaped up and popped the ball back down to Smith for try number seven.

A record-breaking win for the Highlanders over the Blues, but fully deserved and so impressive in conditions that weren't ideal.

Whoever takes on the Highlanders next weekend faces a huge challenge.