Highlanders score first win against Blues

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Saturday, March 11, 2017    Lynn McConnell    Getty Images

But the only satisfaction would have been in the scoreboard points, this was not a game either side could feel especially happy about and it was the poorest of the local derbies seen this year.

The home team looked out of sorts and while kept in the hunt with three penalty goals from first five-eighths Ihaia West and one from his replacement Piers Francis, the game was conceded when replacement prop Sam Prattley's errant kick at a ball in a ruck provided Highlanders first five-eighths replacement Marty Banks with the winning chance nine minutes from the end and he didn't let his side down.

There was time for a 76th minute break from the base of a ruck by halfback Augustine Pulu but when replacement wing Melani Nanai attempted an in-pass just out from the corner it went forward and the Highlanders were able to clear from the five-metre scrum.

The Blues mounted a drive at the line, and won a penalty with Highlander Gareth Evans sin-binned, but in taking the tap the Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu dropped the ball just short of the goal-line to provide a summation of an error-ridden Blues night.

It was a costly win for the Highlanders losing wing Waisake Naholo 13 minutes into the first half and first five-eighths Lima Sopoaga with 16 minutes of the game to go. The Blues had started without prop Charlie Faumuina who pulled out with a back strain before the game.

The first half was not a good example of option-taking by both sides, nor of their respective skill sets. While the pressure to get a grip on the game in the second half resulted in a string of dropped passes from both sides.

The number of passes thrown by players not looking where they were passing proved infectious. So often it is the receiver who is criticised for knocking on but there were plenty of examples of players throwing poorly directed passes.

All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith was guilty of two poor choices, an inside pass to No.8 Luke Whitelock that could have yielded a try in the 10minutes before the half. Then moments later after a turnover due to poor Blues ruck management, a waste of a spectacular break from their own line, Smith put a kick across the goal mouth that badly misfired rolling over the deadball line with none of his players anywhere near running onto it.

But he wasn't alone. The Blues lineout was all over the shop in a poor show of control, something evident in indecision at the base of rucks.

The Blues paid a hefty price for lack of co-ordination in their rearguard with fullback Michael Collins making a poor choice fielding a ball outside his own 22m area in the move that led to the opening penalty goal of the game landed by Sopoaga 13 minutes into the game.

Banks had only been on the field for seconds as a replacement for Naholo after 13 minutes. And when halfback Smith's kick downfield was disastrously allowed to bounce by wing Rene Ranger and between him and Collins they failed to control the ball.

Centre Malakai Fekitoa was onto the ball in a flash and found Banks in support. He took the ball into the 22m area and passed out for Fekitoa to get over wide out.

Fekitoa, wing Tevita Li and second five-eighths Rob Thompson made good ground for the Highlanders on occasion while Moala was the most dangerous of the home backs, with one startling break at the three-quarter mark getting the closest to a try. It came after replacement five-eighths Piers Francis's double round found space and Moala was able to charge to the goal-line but his pass to his support was intercepted on the line and cleared. It was that sort of night for the home side.

Scorers: Blues 12 (Ihaia West 3 pen; Piers Francis pen) Highlanders 16 (Malakai Fekitoa tries; Lima Sopoaga con, 2 pen; Marty Banks pen). HT: 6-10