Highlanders win nine-try thriller
The 41-34 victory in a nine-try thriller in Dunedin was the perfect opening match in the New Zealand conference – putting on display all that is good in the Kiwi game.
It also means the Blues' winless run against New Zealand opposition continues. They have not beaten Kiwi opposition since Round One in 2016 – just one draw in 12 matches.
Neither side showed much interest in kicking for goal, as the lead changed five times in the first half.
However, it was a yellow card to Blues replacement Antonio Kiri Kiri in the 54th minute. The visitors held a seven-point lead at that stage. When Kiri Kiri returned his team trailed by seven points – the margin with which they lost by.
The three-time champions have not made the play-offs since 2011 but newly anointed captain Augustine Pulu said he remained confident of improvement this season.
"We got the effort and that's all you can ask for but we're still disappointed and there are a few things we can work on," he said.
"We're going to build from this."
No doubt the Highlanders have set the bar high for the New Zealand conference.
The Highlanders had to fight back from a half-time deficit to start Aaron Mauger's coaching reign in winning fashion.
Neither side showed any signs of early-season rust in a high-tempo opening half featuring tit-for-tat tries and five changes of lead.
The Highlanders drew first blood with a Lima Sopoaga penalty but Blues pivot Bryn Gatland soon hit back with a converted try after being set up by Sonny Bill Williams.
Thompson broke a tackle for his first try, only for Matt Duffie to regain the advantage for the Blues in a movement featuring spectacular offloads from Williams and Ioane.
Thompson's second try came from a run near the half-way line that caught the Blues' defenders flat footed but the Blues again retaliated immediately through Ioane.
The Aucklanders led 24-17 at the break, with the try-feast continuing after the restart when Highlanders prop Siate Tokolahi locked up the scores at 24-24.
Ioane's second put them in front before Blues forward Antonio Kirikiri was sin-binned for a high tackle on Sopoaga.
It resulted in the Highlanders stealing the ball from a Blues scrum feed then slipping it to Teihorangi Walden for a converted try that levelled the score at 31-31.
They went on the attack again and Walden latched onto a Thompson chip kick to score his second and put the Highlanders ahead again.
The sides exchanged penalties but the Highlanders were able to hold on to their buffer until the whistle.
Man of the match: Blues flyhalf Bryn Gatland had a great debut, while brothers Rieko and Akira Ioane were also very impressive. Ash Dixon and Luke Whitelock were the Highlanders' most productive forwards. Fullback Ben Smith and scrumhalf Aaron Smith were also very influential – especially the latter with his great kicking game. However, our award goes to Highlanders centre Rob Thompson, who showed so much creativity – including that sublime chip-kick for Teihorangi's second try.
For the Highlanders:
Tries: Thompson 2, Tokolahi, Walden 2
Cons: Sopoaga 5
Pens: Sopoaga, F Smith
For the Blues:
Tries: Gatland, Duffie, A Ioane 2
Cons: Gatland 4
Pens: Gatland 2
Yellow card: Antonio Kiri Kiri (Blues, 54 – foul play, high tackle)
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Dan Pryor, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Bryn Gatland, 9 Augustine Pulu (captain), 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Murphy Taramai, 6 Glenn Preston, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Michael Tamoaieta, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Antonio Kiri Kiri, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 23 Melani Nanai.
Referee: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)