Ranger and Weepu act secures win for Blues
Rene Ranger and Piri Weepu produced a one-two act to score two vital tries for the Blues to claim a 29-18 win over the Highlanders in a topsy-turvy Friday night game at Eden Park.
On both occasions the ball was worked to Ranger on the left wing. He was able to ghost along the sideline, sucking in the defence, before flicking the ball inside where halfback Weepu was waiting to take the ball and run in for the try.
But it wasn't as clear for the Blues as the score suggested. They were untidy at the lineout, out-mastered at the scrum and on the back foot for long periods of the game.
Typical of the fluctuation fortunes of the game was the introduction of halfback Fumiaki Tanaka in the 60th minute, just after Weepu scored his first try.
Tanaka had an immediate impact after the Blues coughed up the ball as he sliced through a gap to flick a pass to replacement wing Phil Burleigh. He raced down the sideline and scored in the tackle. Slade couldn't land the sideline conversion which left the Blues in front 19-18.
Blues first five-eighths Chris Noakes extended the lead in the 67th minute with a penalty goal.
No.8 Mose Tuiali'i has a drastic effect on his first outing for the Highlanders, adding force in the loose which had been missing since they lost Nasi Manu. It allowed the backs to get more ball on the front foot and unleashed the danger of wing Buxton Popoali'i whose break set up the side's first try.
In the eighth minute Popoali'i burst onto a pass at speed, unleashed a powerful fend on Noakes to get into space and then linked with centre Jason Emery and when he was stopped fullback Ben Smith was on hand to pick up the ball and stretch over the line to touch down and with Slade's conversion the lead was out to 10-0.
Second five-eighths Ma'a Nonu paid the price for a cynical shoulder charge on Blues halfback, and team-mate in the All Blacks, Piri Weepu as he made good ground on a break.
Initially, referee Steve Walsh issued a penalty for the offence which left Weepu on the ground. However, on seeing the charge on the ground's television replay screen he issued an immediate yellow card.
The Highlanders suffered immediately as the Blues took play into the Highlanders' 22m area, courtesy of a driving break by flanker Luke Braid. The ball was moved left again and a long pass found flanker Steve Luatua on the wing and he raced in for the Blues first try.
Just before Nonu was due to return a penalty allowed the Blues to move the ball from a lineout and it was fullback Charles Piutau who beat two tackles, as he did so many times on the night, and set up a ruck which saw the Blues rumble towards the line. A penalty was conceded at a ruck on the line.
While it took an age for the Highlanders to release the ball, it emerged and captain Ali Williams took a quick tap and it was prop Angus Ta'avao who charged onto a short pass to crash through for the try.
The Blues suffered their own sin-binning when following a high kick wing George Moala hit Popoali'i with a high tackle, albeit while Popoali'i was crouched but Walsh had no hesitation in making the ruling. Play was held up while Popoali'i was stretchered from the field.
The Highlanders camped on the Blues five-metre line for a series of scrums early in the second half. Prop Jamie Mackintosh marked his first game of the season with a powerful scrummaging display.
When the ball was released, Nonu got into space but was unable to control the ball. The Blues took the chance to introduce All Black hooker Keven Mealamu for his first appearance of the season, and the ball was cleared from the line.
Demonstrating a high level of patience, the Blues worked their way back into the Highlanders territory, and while Rene Ranger had moved to the wing, it did not diminish his danger.
In the 58th minute, solid build up from flanker Luke Braid produced a chance which saw Ali Williams feed the ball to Ranger on the sideline. He bustled along the touch and then threw a perfect pass for Weepu to run onto and score.
Blues 29 (Steven Luatua, Angus Ta'avao, Piri Weepu 2 tries; Chris Noakes 2 con, pen; Baden Kerr con) Highlanders 18 (Ben Smith, Phil Burleigh tries; Colin Slade con, 2 pen). HT:12-13