Blues pip Highlanders 33-31 in Super Rugby

The Blues have given new coach Tana Umaga a winning start to Super Rugby, downing the defending champion Highlanders 33-31 in a pulsating season opener in Auckland.

After a freewheeling first half at Eden Park on Friday night in which five tries were scored, the second spell became a tense battle before the contest produced a big finish.

The Blues, who ended second last in 2015, looked to have locked up the victory with nine minutes to go, just after Highlanders winger Patrick Osborne had been yellow-carded for being offside at a ruck.

From the next attack, Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu, back from the hip surgery that ruled him out of last year’s World Cup, forced his way over.

Five-eighth Ihaia West’s conversion opened the gap beyond seven points.

But the Highlanders refused to give up, a 60m attack from a set piece ending in fullback Ben Smith’s second try of the night with three minutes to go.

The Blues, behind 24-20 at halftime, had added to their firepower early in the second spell by introducing their star reserves of midfield back Rene Ranger, prop Charlie Faumuina and loose forward Akira Ioane.

They began to swing back momentum, with Ranger and Ioane attracting plenty of attention when they carried the ball.

The penalties began to mount against the Highlanders and West landed two of them to put his side 26-24 ahead with a quarter to go.

The visitors came up with some spirited defence, repelling one raid of 20 phases, only then to have Osborne sin-binned.

Earlier, the Highlanders drew first blood, co-skipper Smith scoring after No.8 Liam Squire had produced a couple of strong carries.

The Blues struck back with two tries of their own, the first from deep downfield after West’s cross-kick was snapped up by fullback Lolagi Visinia, who sent winger Melani Nanai over.

Then, after a couple of snipes by busy halfback Bryn Hall, young flanker Blake Gibson barged his way over.

But the Highlanders came back with their own try double, inside centre Teihorangi Walden, who was solid on his Super Rugby debut, finishing off an attack with a neat dummy.

Winger Waisake Naholo, whose 13 tries last year were a big part of the Highlanders’ drive to the title, again showed his sharp scoring ability, pulling in a kick from halfback Aaron Smith to score.

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