The Otago Highlanders finally unleashed the dominant performance expected of them all year as they demolished the Auckland Blues 38-28 in a Super 15 derby in Dunedin, New Zealand, on Saturday.
They wrapped the game up in the opening 30 minutes when they raced to a 29-0 lead and also had their four-try bonus point in the bag.
The Blues scored on the stroke of halftime to trail 7-29 at the turn and lifted their attack in the second half with three more tries to also collect a bonus point.
The loss leaves the Blues in seventh place and with a tough climb into the top six as they face a two-match tour to South Africa and a clash with the table-topping Waikato Chiefs.
The Highlanders, with an All Blacks-stacked squad, were tipped in the pre-season to be certainties for the top-six playoffs, but instead they faltered week after week.
However, after losing 11 of their first 12 games and being firmly anchored at the bottom of the table, they unearthed an emphatic winning statement.
Coach Jamie Joseph made seven changes to the side from who lost 19-18 to the Western Force last week, which included demoting All Blacks Aaron Smith and Ma’a Nonu to the bench and dropping Tony Woodcock from the 22-man squad.
The side made their intentions clear from the start as they won the opening forward exchanges to camp deep in Blues territory.
They rejected a kickable penalty in favor of a scrum to increase the pressure and were rewarded soon after with a try to fullback Ben Smith, who ran straight through a disorganized Blues pack.
Tries to Tamati Ellison, Hosea Gear and Smith again followed with Colin Slade landing three conversions for the Highlanders to race to a 29-0 lead.
The Blues had to wait until the final play of the first half to get on the board, when Waisake Naholo gathered in a chip-kick as the Highlanders defenders ran into each other and raced unopposed to the line.
Slade pushed the Highlanders out to a 35-7 lead with two penalties early in the second half before the Blues cut down their high infringement rate to focus on attacking.
Converted tries to Rene Ranger and Steven Luatua closed the gap to 35-21 with 15 minutes to play, but the Blues lost the momentum by giving away another penalty.
Replacement flyhalf Hayden Parker landed the three points for the Highlanders, leaving the Blues with only the bonus point to play for and it came with a try to Luke Braid in injury-time.
REDS VS REBELS
Flyhalf Quade Cooper overcame an early nightmare to score the decisive points as the Queensland Reds came from behind to beat the Melbourne Rebels 33-20 in a frenetic Super rugby contest yesterday.
Cooper, on notice from watching Australia coach Robbie Deans that he was auditioning for a place in the squad to face the British and Irish Lions, had two defensive kicks charged down for Rebels tries in six first-half minutes.
However, with his team 20-18 down with 15 minutes to go, Cooper recovered his kicking touch to convert a penalty and four minutes later wriggled over the line for a try that gave the Reds a 28-20 lead they would never relinquish.
However, in one blow for Deans, the Rebels’ Scott Higginbotham, a likely starter in his back row to face the Lions, left the field early in the second half with a painful shoulder injury.
James O’Connor put in a steady if unspectacular display, while his Nick Phipps put his hand up for one of the remaining six spots in the Wallabies squad.