‘We wanted to throw some punches’- Highlanders have a crack but classy Blues too good at Eden Park

The Blues have overcome a tough first half-hour, largely against a 14-man Highlanders side, to post a 35-6 win in their Super Rugby Pacific sudden-death quarter-final at Eden Park.

The visitors were strong for the most part – heavy underdogs going in, the Highlanders had nothing to lose, and played simple rugby. They ran hard and did the basics well at an Eden Park a venue that appeared to hold no demons for them.

Indeed, the home crowd was kept mostly quiet unless they were booing penalty goal attempts.

After 30 minutes, the visitors were up 6-nil – without front-rower Andrew Makalio, who was sent off for a move once described as ‘playing rugby’ but now against its laws.

Yet while the Highlanders can be proud of the effort, the Blues are not minor premiers for nowt. And in fly-half Beauden Barrett and centres Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Rieko Ioane, and fullback Stephen Perofeta, they have an attacking quartet more dangerous than a backyard meth lab.

“Tonight the Blues were just too good,” Highlanders captain Marty Banks told Sky Sport after the defeat.

“They capitalised off our mistakes. And that’s finals footy. We got taught a lesson.

“We just wanted to come up here and throw some punches. We knew it would be a fortress, with all their fans and the [13-match winning] run the Blues were on. So we came up to play ‘landers footy and we got stuck in.

“The red card didn’t help, it was unfortunate. An accident more than anything. But after that the boys really dug in.”

Yet so did the Blues; and after 30 minutes of patience and pressure, the dam burst. Akira Ioane hit a hole, hard, ran 20 metres and plunged over.

The Blues came again, with their big men making big yards. Lock James Tucker was one of them, ploughing over on the other side of the posts. Referee Angus Gardner put his hand in the air and blew his whistle and the Blues celebrated… but it was a penalty for a double-movement.

Highlanders fly-half Marty Banks didn’t put the penalty kick into touch – his team didn’t need that. And after rolling waves of footwork at speed and quick recycled ball, tricky speedster Barrett dummied with the ball in two hands, discovered a hole and scorched away on his quick, dainty feet. Suddenly, the Blues were up 14-6.

After the break the Blues pulled away, as expected. Their best try was a beautiful move from a lineout; giant No.8 Hoskins Sotutu, mop of hair like a golden fleece, hit Tuivasa-Sheck with a flat ball Barrett would’ve been happy with.

Tuivasa-Sheck burst into space and found Rieko Ioane, who in turn found Barrett – pretty handy 10-12-13 there – who scored.

It wasn’t surprising: Barrett has scored more points against the Highlanders than anybody else. When the captain bombed and AJ Lam scored after a chase on Banks, there was the game.

For the Highlanders, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u had his moments: there’s a lot of him. As did his halfback, the livewire Folau Fakatava. And their greater pack of forwards fought a draw, for the most part, in the tight and dark spaces.

But the class of the Blues’ back division was telling. Tuivasa-Sheck scored following a sweeping backline move that featured that man Sotutu again. And though the Highlanders kept on trucking, and may have scored a couple at the end, the Blues were deserved 29-point victors.

While pleased with his team’s attack and the win, Barrett was happiest with the spirit his team showed, and that they kept a clean sheet where tries are concerned.

“You can never get comfortable against the Highlanders. They showed grit and played their heart out,” Barrett said.

“We took some time to find our groove. But it’s great we finally expressed ourselves. It’s great we kept them try-less.”

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