Punishing Blues errors the Highlanders made an emphatic start to their 2014 Super Rugby campaign with a battling 29-21 win at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday.
The poorest of New Zealand's franchises last year, with only three wins, the Highlanders also secured a bonus point and retained the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy with their win.
Led by lock Jarrad Hoeata ,who found himself without his experienced locking partner Brad Thorn when left the field with an injury after 18 minutes, the Highlanders contested everything to create all manner of pressure for the Blues.
With strong support from hooker Liam Coltman around the field, and the ever present flanker Shane Christie, the Highlanders were unrelenting and the Blues never settled. As they attempted to run down the home team's advantage, they were guilty of conceding crucial penalties at the breakdown and in scrums.
It was a two-try burst in the ninth and 12th minutes that gave the Highlanders the impetus and they didn't let up until the final quarter when the Blues finally found their continuity game.
All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith read a Blues scrum play outside their 22m area cleverly and moved off the to the blindside where he was able to challenge Chris Noakes as he attempted a kick clearance. Smith charged the kick down, regained the ball and then beat Noakes in the run to the line, nine minutes into the game.
As the Blues attempted to build a response they turned the ball over in the face of pressure from Coltman. The ball shot out onto the blindside where centre Malakai Fekitoa saw there were some slow forwards in the defence line. He broke them and charged into clear space to run away a score a second try three minutes after the first.
Flyhalf Lima Sopoaga converted both tries and landed a 17th minute penalty goal to give his side a 17-0 lead.
Twice the Blues got into try-scoring positions only to let chances go due to sloppy ball retention and a breakout five minutes from halftime by Aaron Smith almost added to the embarrassment of the visitors.
Desperate defence looked to have relieved the situation for the Blues but poor lineout control proved costly.
Flanker Shane Christie secured a long lineout throw and the ball was moved wide and it was fullback and co-captain Ben Smith who took a long pass across his backs to go over for the third try of the half.
Down 0-24 at half-time, the Blues started the second half in a fury as Francis Saili burst through the home defences, chipped the ball ahead, regained the ball and went over in the tackle to get his side on the board.
Good feeling waking up sore! Good result for us. Great team effort. But early days. Back to work tomorrow! ✌️— Aaron Smith (@A_Smith09) February 22, 2014
But there was no panic in the Highlanders camp. They launched a high mid-field kick from Ben Smith off the blindside of a scrum. Wing Patrick Osborne competed for the ball with Blues fullback Charles Piutau, won the ball and set up a ruck.
A strong run by Shaun Treeby, who wasn't held in a tackle, set up ball to be moved to the left where Osborne capped his earlier week by scoring the bonus point try.
The Blues introduced Benji Marshall around the three-quarter mark and he moved to fullback with Charles Piutau moving to centre in place of Jackson Willison.
Two tries got them back to 21-29 down with 11 minutes to play. Captain Luke Braid featured in several charging runs with ball in hand to break up the Highlanders dominance in that area.
After mounting some sustained pressure in the Highlanders' half, the Blues had reward when Braid took a tap penalty on the five-metre line and it was replacement prop Angus Ta'avao who scored.
Marshall was quickly into action, storming forward to take a quick tap penalty which ignited the Blues.
In the resulting play there was time for a trademark back flick pass to No.8 Peter Saili who carried the play forward and from a ruck close to the line it was replacement Patrick Tuipolotu who scored as the Blues came back to 21-29, but it was as close as they'd get.