Rieko Ioane scored twice as the Blues beat the Highlanders 33-26 in a tight, tense Super Rugby clash at Eden Park, Auckland.
The narrow victory breaks a 20-game winless streak for the Blues in New Zealand derbies going back three years when they defeated the Highlanders 33-31 at Eden Park in 2016.
The Highlanders had won six of their last seven against the Blues and led by three late in the game. Patrick Tuipulotu, who was a titan crashed over in the 74th-minute after a 19-phase attack.
The try came after Waisake Naholo, a virtual bystander all evening, was yellow carded for a dangerous tip-tackle on Tom Robinson.
Tevita Li and the dangerous Melani Nanai both scored after the interval after Marty Banks and Harry Plummer traded penalties.
Banks, who collected 16 points from the kicking tee put Aaron Mauger’s side 23-26 up early in the fourth quarter, but the visitors could not hold on.
The lead changed hands seven times as the Highlanders slumped to an eighth defeat in their last 10 Super Rugby Kiwi derbies.
The Blues took a slender two-point halftime lead after Rieko Ioane’s first-half brace, extending his tally to nine tries in his last five home Super Rugby matches.
Luke Whitelock crossed for the Highlanders after the visitor’s pack dismantled their opponent’s scrum, and Marty Banks’ boot kept his side in touching distance of the home team.
In Memory of those who lost their lives in Christchurch
It was a rather sombre beginning to a Super Rugby match because of last week’s massacre in Christchurch. But this was a time for reflection and remembrance in the wake of the tragedy.
Both sides embraced for a moment’s silence before kickoff with the stadium announcer’s voice cracking up as he asked the Auckland crowd to stand.
Sonny Bill Williams was missing because of compassionate leave.
Imagine, John Lennon’s poignant lament played through the stadium tannoy as the teams refocused on the task at hand.
Banks kicked an early penalty to put his side on the board, but it was the hosts who had the better of the opening quarter.
Early scrum dominance and some good work at the breakdown gave them territory and a chance at points.
Such has been the despair in the City of Sails that a loud cheer rang around the ground when the Blues opted for an attacking lineout rather than try and level the scores.
They were soon cheering, letting out a mighty roar when Rieko Ioane sliced through the Highlanders from a lineout.
The 22-year-old broke the initial tackle and sped away from the cover defenders before slipping Naholo’s weak tackle. He turned Naholo inside out with some fancy footwork before dotting down.
Plummer, who had been kicking at a dire 37 per cent this season, pushed the conversion attempt wide.
Aaron Smith’s blindside break from a scrum set the visitors on the attack. Shannon Frizell carried to the goal line as the Blues scrambled.
Blake Gibson was caught offsides, and instead of taking the points, the Otago side opted for a scrum underneath the posts.
Their decision paid dividends in the form of seven points. The Highlanders’ forward pack demolished a sorry Blues’ scrum allowing Whitelock to pick up the rolling ball and flop over the whitewash.
A penalty from the restart gave Plummer a chance to regain the lead for his side, but again he missed, this time shanking his kick well wide of the posts.
Nanai stamps his authority on proceedings with a show of things to come
Plummer eventually found his radar, kicking a 24th-minute penalty before the magic show.
Ioane, fresh off the back of his four-try heroics against the Sunwolves, was soon at it again thanks to the magnificence of Nanai.
The fullback carved up the Highlanders, stepping Liam Coltman – the hooker had no chance – and a burst of pace that left a trail of cover defenders behind.
Famine to feast.
Nanai drew the remaining defenders and offloaded to Thomas Faiane in support, who in turn, served up the home town hero’s second on a plate.
The flyer had two scores in 33-minutes to add to his 37-minute quadruple the Japanese in North Harbour – six tries in 70 minutes of rugby after no five-pointers in the opening four fixtures.
Akira Ioane was pinged for an infraction allowing Banks to reduce the Blues’ lead to two as the teams headed to the shed.
Li sucker-punch upstages Nanai in aerial dual
Tom Robinson waltzed in under the sticks after a beautiful offload from Nanai, but after a TMO review, the try is chalked off for a forward pass by the Samoan. The Highlanders were warned.
Banks and Plummer traded penalties ahead of Li’s wonderful solo effort from the latter’s wayward up-and-under.
Nanai’s only blemish was letting Li out-jump himself and Tanielu Tele’a. The 23-year-old wing gathered and sprinted 35 metres. It was a sucker-punch score against the run of play.
Mauger’s charges then went to sleep. Faiane barged his way through Whitelock and Patelesio Tomkinson, drew Li, and sent Nanai away for a deserved try to level.
Otere Black took over kicking duties but missed the sideline conversion.
Akira Ioane, who had only missed one tackle coming into the fixture won a maul turnover.
The number eight’s good work was undone when the Highlanders dismantled another Blues’ scrum. Banks’ fourth penalty put the South Islanders ahead, once more but the game changed from the restart.
Naholo’s double blunder proves costly
He dropped Black’s kickoff giving the hosts an attacking scrum on the Landers 22. Ma’a Nonu jumped the gun, going offsides at the set-piece.
His mistake was not costly because a counter-attack led to Naholo’s sin-binning with less than 12 minutes remaining.
Time was ebbing away. Both sides were giving away possession through penalties and turnovers until the Blues put together the longest series of play in the game.
Leon MacDonald’s men went 19 phases using pick-and-drives with their ball carriers as they punched their way towards the try line.
The Highlanders could not withstand the intensity; they folded under the weight of the pressure: that and the titanic Tuipulotu.
Nonu took the ball up. Tuipulotu carried. Akira Ioane drove forward but was halted.
Nonu, again fighting his way towards the chalk, went close before Tuipulotu’s finish got the derby monkey off their backs.
Final Score: Blues 33 (15) Highlanders 26 (13)
Tries – R. Ioane (2), Nanai, Tuipulotu
Pen – Plummer (2), Black
Con – Plummer, Black
Tries – Whitelock, Li
Pen – Banks (4)
Con – Banks (2)
Cards – Naholo (Yellow, 68′)
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen
Assistant Ref 1: Nic Berry
Assistant Ref 2: Brendan Pickerill
TMO: Ben Skeen
Blues: 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Tanielu Tele’a, 13 Thomas Faiane, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Harry Plummer, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Dalton Papalii, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Otere Black, 23 Levi Aumua.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Patelesio Tomkinson, 12 Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock (co-captain), 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Ayden Johnstone.
Replacements: 16 Ray Niuia, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 Jackson Hemopo, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Richard Buckman.