The Blues have survived the loss of Beauden Barrett – and plenty of Highlanders resistance – to chalk up a 32-25 win in a tough battle in Dunedin on Saturday.
With a crowd of 7563 in stands at Forsyth Barr Stadium, the Blues led by 32-18 points with about 15 minutes to go, but still had to dig deep to repel a much-improved Highlanders effort.
However, much of the post-match debate will focus on Barrett. The 30-year-old took a heavy knock to the head in the 41st minute, as big Highlanders midfielder Fetuli Paea crashed into him at high speed with a typically direct carry.
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Barrett stayed down after the contact, and although he got to his feet shortly afterwards he was taken off for an HIA and failed to return. Stephen Perofeta took his place.
The incident will be a big concern for Barrett – and the All Blacks – as Barrett struggled with the effects of concussion for months after taking a similarly hard blow to the head against Ireland last November.
With Perofeta in such good form, the Blues are likely to take a conservative approach with the 30-year-old playmaker.
Barrett had a good first half in his first start at No 10 this season, mixing some smart tactical kicking with some unsympathetic passing.
However, he used his trademark pace and finishing ability to grab a try just before halftime, exposing the Highlanders’ right edge defence as Clarke had done earlier.
The Blues still managed to get the job done in his absence, with the classy Perofeta ghosting through a gap with about 15 minutes to go to push the Blues’ lead out to 14 points – leaving the Highlanders with too much to do.
Sean Maloney and Andrew Mehrtens are joined by Lori Cramer as they talk Super W, Super Rugby Pacific and Six Nations. Seanny and Mehrts have some new jerseys on, the NSW refs sent in pies and Lori offers up a selection for the ‘Weird Cat XV.’
However, the winless Highlanders will feel that their attack finally started to click. They had the Blues under genuine pressure in the third quarter as they played towards the noisy Zoo end, and could have tied the game up had Mosese Dawai’s try not been disallowed for a knock on.
But the Highlanders will rue some key defensive lapses throughout the game.
Blues wingers Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea relished the space they were given, with both breaking tackles apparently at will.
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Clarke blasted through the attempted tackle of Mitch Hunt for the Blues’ opening try, and Telea again showed his rare talent for beating the first tackler.
For the Highlanders, Gilbert provided some cutting edge from back, picking up two tries.
The big moment
Highlanders winger Mosese Dawai was denied a try in the 61st minute after the TMO spotted a knock on from the same player in the preceding phase.
8/10. With crowds back in the stands, there was a noticeable lift in intensity, particularly during the second half.
The big picture
The Highlanders are bottom of the ladder and must travel to Christchurch to face the Crusaders next Saturday. It’s a daunting fixture but they should take some confidence from their second-half display. The Blues now play Moana Pasifika twice in five days, the first game coming on Tuesday at Mt Smart Stadium, and face a waiting game on Barrett.
Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Scott Gregory and Shannon Frizell had strong games for the Highlanders, while Blues lock James Tucker got through a mountain of work, and Caleb Clarke had good moments on both sides of the ball. But No 8 Hoskins Sotutu really stood up when it mattered for the Blues.
Blues 32 (Caleb Clarke try 10 min, Beauden Barrett try 39 min, Hoskins Sotutu try 54 min, Stephen Perofeta 64 min, Barrett con, 2 pens, Perofeta 2 cons). HT: 18-6.
Highlanders 25 (Sam Gilbert try 48 min, try 70 min, Daniel Lienert-Brown try 58 min, Mitch Hunt 2 pens, 2 cons)