Blues go down to Highlanders in season opener

The Blues produced a spirited second half fight back but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Highlanders as they suffered a 29-21 defeat in their season opener in Dunedin tonight.

Down 24-0 at the break following a horror first half, the Blues sparked into life in the second stanza through Francis Saili, Charles Piutau and an industrious Benji Marshall who came on for his Super Rugby debut off the bench with 20 minutes remaining.

However the damage had been inflicted in the first half and despite outscoring the Highlanders 21-5 in the second half, the visitors were unable to claw back the generous lead they’d given the home side.

Like they did to the Blues at Forsyth Barr Stadium last year, the Highlanders blitzed their opponents in the first half, racing out of the gates to build a commanding lead.

The Blues in contrast were terrible ñ they lacked accuracy, errors riddled their game and they played far too much in their own half to never really trouble the home side.  Sniping halfback Aaron Smith got his side on the board after nine minutes, charging down a Chris Noakes clearing kick and regathering the ball before going over in the corner.

A member of the Blues Wider Training Group last season, powerful midfielder Malakai Fekitoa moved south to join the Highlanders for the 2014 Investec Super Rugby season, and he made his former side pay with a superb try after 14 minutes.  Seizing on a turnover, Fekitoa used his speed to burst through a hole before wrong footing Frank Halai to go over the whitewash, much to the joy of the raucous 15,000 strong crowd at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Blues first five-eighths Chris Noakes missed two penalty attempts at goal before All Blacks star Ben Smith scored for the Highlanders on the stroke of halftime as the home side took a commanding 24-0 lead into the break. Blues head coach Sir John Kirwan must surely have read the riot act to his side as they came out a different football team in the second half.

All Black midfielder Francis Saili sparked his team into life with a superb individual try just a minute into the second stanza.  The livewire second-five ran a great line to break the Highlanders defence before chipping the ball and beating three opposition players in the air to regather it and fight his way over the try line.

Noakes converted the try as the Blues finally got themselves on the scoreboard, but it was soon nullified by Highlanders wing Patrick Osbourne who was on the end of an overlap to secure the home side’s bonus point try.

Star recruit Benji Marshall was injected into the game with 20 minutes remaining and he immediately made his impact felt, pulling off his trademark reverse flick pass which led to a try that got the Blues right back into the game.

Replacement prop Angus Ta’avao crashed over with 15 minutes to go, and when Patrick Tuipulotu also scored on debut, the Blues had a sniff as they came within eight points heading into the final 10 minutes.

However the visitors were unable to crack the resolute Highlanders defence in the dying stages, and a missed penalty attempt on fulltime by Noakes left the Blues empty handed with not even a losing bonus point for their troubles.

The Blues return home to face the Crusaders at Eden Park on Friday night in their first home game of the season.