The Auckland Blues maintained their outside chance of claiming New Zealand’s Super Rugby Aotearoa title with a 32-21 victory over a hard-finishing Otago Highlanders in Dunedin yesterday.
They led 32-16 after 55 minutes and then produced a gritty defence to hold off the desperate Highlanders who controlled the final quarter and threw everything at the visitors.
Blues captain Paddy Tuipulotu summed up the game as “a real nail-biter,” and rated it as one of his side’s best performances in their late charge for the championship.
“I think it was. Coming down to the last five minutes it was really close points-wise,” he said. “We had to dig in deep with our D [defense] and it was good for us to hang our hat on the D and get the win.”
However, after disposing of the Highlanders, the Blues now need the Otago club to do them a favor and beat the table-topping Canterbury Crusaders next weekend. A Crusaders win would give them the title with a week to spare, but an upset Highlanders victory would set up a final-round decider between the Blues and the Crusaders at Eden Park in Auckland.
Following the bonus-point victory against the Highlanders the Blues trail the Crusaders by two points, although they have a bye next weekend.
Against the Highlanders they scored four tries in the first half, but were left frustrated when they were denied a fifth after Dalton Papalii galloped 70m to the try line from an intercept.
The try was disallowed after the referee ruled that a prone Karl Tu’inukuafe impeded play when Highlanders scrumhalf Aaron Smith tripped over him as the Highlanders scrambled to retain possession before the intercept.
The Blues produced a rollicking start with tries to standout backrower Akira Ioane and Finlay Christie in the opening 10 minutes.
Once the Highlanders settled, they gained momentum through a Josh Ioane penalty and then a converted try to Ash Dixon off a line-out drive. A second Ioane penalty put the Highlanders ahead 13-12, although it was to be a short-lived lead.
Two minutes later a Tu’inukuafe turnover resulted in a try to T.J. Faiane and after a third Ioane penalty, Ofa Tuungafasi crashed over on the stroke of halftime.
The Blues stretched the lead in the third quarter with a second try to scrumhalf Christie and a Barrett penalty.
The Highlanders have a reputation for producing a big finish as they did in their last match when they trailed the Waikato Chiefs 24-0 at one stage before storming home to win 33-31, but there was to be no fairytale ending this time.
They were camped deep in Blues territory for most of the final quarter, but managed only one try to Shannon Frizell.
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