A stand-out match from All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith has guided the Highlanders to a 41-34 win over the Blues in their Super Rugby season-opener in Dunedin.
Smith's intelligent kicking, sharp running and bullet passes proved pivotal as the Highlanders ran in five tries to the Blues' four in Friday's match at Forsyth Barr Stadium. The second-half sin-binning of Blues loose forward Antonio Kiri Kiri proved equally influential, with the Highlanders scoring twice in his absence to take a seven-point lead which they held to the end.
A full-on start featured turnovers and line breaks in equal measure, the Highlanders opening the scoring with a Lima Sopoaga penalty in the 10th minute. The Blues responded five minutes later, Bryn Gatland crossing after a move which featured breaks first from Sonny Bill Williams then James Parsons. That triggered a series of tit-for-tat tries, the lead changing hands with each one.
Highlanders centre Rob Thompson crossed for the first of his two in the 20th minute, only for Matt Duffie to hit back four minutes later down the short side after brilliant offloading from Williams and Rieko Ioane. Thompson grabbed his second as the half-hour mark approached, Smith wrapping around to create the space for the centre to crash through and give the home team a 17-14 lead.
However, the Blues finished strongly, Akira Ioane striking with deadly effect from the back of an attacking scrum one minute from halftime, before Gatland's stoppage-time penalty gave them a 24-17 lead at the break.
The second half proved equally up tempo, the Highlanders levelling the scores just three minutes after the restart. Prop Siate Tokolahi barged over after Smith's quick tap from a penalty gave the Highlanders some momentum, but the Blues hit back almost immediately through Akira Ioane to lead 31-24.
The Highlanders took full advantage of Kiri Kiri's 54th-minute yellow card for a high tackle on Sopoaga, inside centre Tei Walden crossing twice in four minutes.
The Highlanders maintained their seven-point lead with an exchange of penalties, holding on despite intense pressure from the Blues until the final whistle.