Super Rugby Aotearoa: Plucky Highlanders overcome Blues in high-scoring thriller

The Highlanders have claimed their first home victory of 2021, winning a Super Rugby Aotearoa classic to defeat the Blues 35-29 in Dunedin.

A vintage display from All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith has seen his side take arguably one of the games of the season so far, with the Highlanders scoring five tries to the Blues' four.

Returning to action after a bye week, the Blues opened the scoring inside the first 10 minutes, as halfback Jonathan Ruru showed exceptional awareness to intercept a pass from opposite number, Smith.

From the back of a lineout, Ruru pounced on Smith's pass, and crashed over unopposed for the first try of the evening. Despite the early try though, the Blues' cause was hindered when captain Tom Robinson was forced from the field, having clashed heads with the Highlanders' Shannon Frizell.

But after a penalty from the boot of Josh Ioane, the Highlanders took the lead through Japan international Kazuki Himeno.

A penalty inside the Blues' 22, a quick play from Smith took the Highlanders close, before a quick pick-and-go had Himeno crash over for the hosts' first try of the evening, taking a 10-7 lead.

The Blues were reduced to 14 men before halftime, as Hoskins Sotutu was shown a yellow card for deliberately infringing, causing a Highlanders knock on by getting a boot on the ball at the breakdown. And after some initial confusion that nearly saw Akira Ioane sent to the bin, the match officials eventually got their man.

The Highlanders rubbed salt into the Blues' wounds right away with the man advantage, as Josh Ioane scored from the following scrum, however couldn't convert his own kick, but extended his side's lead to 15-7.

Even down to 14 though, the Blues were by no means out of the game. A clever piece of play from Otere Black played in Rieko Ioane, as the Blues' centre scored to bring the deficit to one point, before the visitors took the lead with a penalty before the break.

At the end a see-saw first half though, the Highlanders took the lead one last time before the break.

With a lineout after the siren, Smith again showed his class, running off the back, before finding Ngataungane Punivai inside him, and putting the winger through to score.

Josh Ioane converted with the final act of the first half, as the Highlanders went into the sheds with a 22-17 advantage.

Smith was instrumental in the first try of the second half as well, winning the ball from Sotutu from the back of a Blues scrum. From there, the Highlanders worked closer and closer to the Blues' tryline, before Hunt fired a cutout pass to Jona Nareki on the left flank, as the winger strolled over for his side's fourth try.

A penalty against reserve hooker Leni Apisai for obstruction allowed the Highlanders to extend their lead to 13 points as Hunt converted - coming after a short delay for a Blues' captain's challenge.

The Blues threatened a late fightback, as All Blacks prop Nepo Laulala scored from close range to bring the scores back to 30-24, only for the Highlanders to hit back again.

A late red card soured the night even further for the Blues, as reserve prop Alex Hodgman was sent off after a shoulder to the head of the Highlanders' James Lentjes, seeing his side forced to finish with 14 men.

Now with their own turn to make the most of a numerical advantage, the Highlanders effectively sealed the win as Michael Collins scored their fifth try of the evening, put through by Hunt to cap an impressive night for the first-five.

The Blues weren't going to die wondering though, and scored one last try of their own as Sotutu went over with a pick-and-go. Ultimately though, it was too little, too late for the Blues.

The win moves the Highlanders into third on the Super Rugby Aotearoa ladder with 14 points, one behind the Blues who have 15.

The loss dents the Blues' hopes of a finals spot, and will be nervously awaiting the Chiefs' result against the Crusaders on Saturday in the race for second. 

The Chiefs have the chance to overtake both the Blues and Highlanders in this weekend's second fixture, if they can beat the table topping Crusaders in Hamilton.

Join Newshub for live updates of the Chiefs v Crusaders from 7:05pm Saturday.