The Auckland Blues stayed in the hunt for a role in the Super 14 playoffs when they brought the Otago Highlanders’ resurgence to a shuddering halt with a 26-6 win yesterday.
The bonus-point, four-try victory — two in each half — in the New Zealand derby temporarily lifted the Blues to second in the championship.
But such is the congestion in the top half of the table, where week 10 started with the top nine teams separated by only eight points, the end of their three-game winning streak may well have ended the Highlanders’ hopes.
The Blues rattled the Highlanders from the start playing a high-paced running game, with kicking restricted to a last resort as they raced to a 14-3 lead inside the first 10 minutes.
Former Highlander loose forward Josh Blackie was the dominant figure on the paddock, dominating the breakdown for the Blues, while Jimmy Gopperth’s direction of play from flyhalf kept the Highlanders’ defense stretched.
For a period in the second half, the Highlanders began to turn the tide when, down 6-21, their tight five started to dictate terms up front.
But their hopes of pulling off a come-from-behind victory fell apart when captain and halfback Jimmy Cowan was red-carded for leading with the shoulder in a late tackle on Gopperth and they played the last 20 minutes with 14 men.
The Blues signaled their intention to run the ball wide from the opening whistle and were immediately rewarded with a try to Isaia Toeava, which Gopperth converted.
It was the second week in a row the Highlanders have conceded a try in the first 30 seconds.
A Matthew Berquist penalty reduced the deficit to 3-7 before a deft piece of individual play by Gopperth extended the Aucklanders’ lead.
The Blues’ pivot cut inside on receiving a ruck ball and dived over several forwards still sprawled on the ground for the try.
The first-half scoring was all over inside the first 10 minutes as the Blues held on to their 14-3 lead through to the break, unable to capitalize on the 10 minutes Highlanders hooker David Hall spent in the sin bin.
A second Berquist penalty just after the resumption was to be the end of the Highlanders’ scoring.
Halfback Taniela Moa stretched the Blues’ lead with a try converted by Gopperth in the 50th minute and Joe Rokocoko added the bonus-point try with two minutes left.
■BRUMBIES 32, BULLS 31
Flyhalf Christian Lealiifano squeezed over for a bonus-point try under the posts with three minutes remaining to give Australia’s ACT Brumbies victory over South Africa’s Bulls in Canberra yesterday.
Lealiifano’s try capped a remarkable final 20 minutes in the match in which the Bulls had scored 14 unanswered points to take a 31-22 lead with 12 minutes remaining.
Stirling Mortlock then pulled his side back into the match at 31-25 with his second penalty with eight minutes remaining, before Lealiifano scored under the posts and Mortlock added his third conversion to take the one-point lead.
Brumbies flanker Mitch Chapman, lock Peter Kimlin and returning captain Stephen Hoiles had all scored tries in the first half to give the hosts a 22-17 lead at the break.
No. 8 Pierre Spies then inspired the Bulls in the second half, producing several storming runs and off-loading in tackles, one of which led to Wynand Olivier’s try that gave his side the lead for the first time in the 62nd minute.