Blues hold late Highlanders surge

Getty Images     20 Feb 2010     Getty Images

The Blues scored three tries to two to retain the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy, which they have held since 2006, before a crowd of about 7000.

The winless Highlanders now have to regroup for a three-match tour of South Africa while the Blues gained their first win after losing to the Hurricanes in round one.

Paul Williams, who scored two tries, was outstanding at fullback for the Blues, Benson Stanley was a steadying influence in midfield and there were some nice touches from Stephen Brett at first five-eighths.

Michael Hobbs was excellent in general play at first five-eighths for the Highlanders but his goal-kicking, one from four, was less impressive. Anthony Boric and Keven Mealamu had impressive games in the forwards.

Jimmy Cowan had a strong game at halfback and hooker Jason Rutledge, lock Josh Bekhuis and flanker Adam Thomson were the pick of the forwards.

Brett kicked off for the Blues in fine, breezy conditions. Tom Donnelly was playing his 50th game for the Highlanders and Mealamu his 97th for the Blues, equaling the record set by Doug Howlett.

The Blues opened the scoring after nine minutes when, after prolonged attack, Benson Stanley floated a long pass to Williams who stepped out of James Paterson's tackle to score in the corner. Brett converted splendidly and the Blues led 7-0.

Two minutes later Paterson atoned for his error when he came in from the blindside wing from a lineout, carved a hole through midfield and fullback Israel Dagg finished off a lovely set piece try.

The Highlanders took the lead for the first time after 24 minutes when the Blues lost the ball forward from a lineout, Jason Rutledge charged at the line and, from the ensuing ruck, Michael Hobbs ran hard at the line and scored his third try of the season. He converted to put the Highlanders ahead, 12-7.

The Highlanders had a clear edge in territory in the first half, 62 percent, but neither side was totally convincing in its set piece work. Both Brett and Hobbs kicked one goal from three attempts.

The Highlanders applied all the pressure in the first 10 minutes of the second spell but it was the Blues who scored first. Prop John Afoa gathered the loose ball, raced 35 metres, drew the defence and Williams cantered over for his second try. Brett converted and the Blues were ahead, 14-12.

And the Blues scored their third try three minutes later when, after forcing a 5m scrum, they attacked patiently and Rene Ranger, who had replaced the injured Isaia Toeava, forced his way through two tackles to extend the lead to 19-12.

Dagg, who took over the goal-kicking from Hobbs, kicked a simple penalty midway through the spell to reduce the deficit to four points.

The Blues battered away at the Highlanders lock Josh Bekhuis was sin-binned for a professional foul, a critical blow.

Ranger was binned four minutes from the end for a dangerous tackle as the Highlanders attacked desperately.

Scores were: Highlanders 15 (Israel Dagg, Michael Hobbs tries, Hobbs con: Dagg pen); Blues 19 ( Paul Williams 2, Rene Ranger tries; Stephen Brett 2 con). HT: 12-7.