Highlanders shed the Blues to maintain playoff hopes
Highlanders 27 Blues 20
Backed up ... the Highlanders' Ma'afu Fia makes a break. Photo: Getty Images
The Highlanders have broken their Eden Park drought and maintained their challenge for the Super Rugby playoffs with a bonus-point 27-20 victory over the hapless Blues.
The Highlanders tasted only their second success at the Auckland ground, and their first since 2002, on Saturday night.
High hopes ... Liaki Moli competes with Adam Thomson in the lineout. Photo: Getty Images
Two of their four tries went to eight-Test winger Hosea Gear, who this week turned down a lucrative Japanese contract in a bid to press his claims for a return to the All Blacks.
The win lifted the Highlanders into the top six and they will stay there if South African conference leaders Stormers beat the Sharks in the last match of the round.
Blues coach Pat Lam made several changes to his starting 15, including benching experienced All Blacks Ali Williams, Ma’a Nonu and Piri Weepu, but the move couldn’t prevent an 11th defeat of the season.
Down but not out ... Jamie Mackintosh regains his composure. Photo: Getty Images
All three did get on in the second half, lock Williams notching up 100 Super Rugby appearances, while Nonu showed plenty of energy after he was introduced.
After the sides traded early penalties, the Highlanders hit the front with a long-range try that began with hooker Andrew Hore snaring a turnover and ended with centre Tamati Ellison getting to his own kick-ahead to dot down.
The visitors crossed again through a slick backline move finished off by Gear, who completed his double a minute into the second spell after a big break by fullback Ben Smith.
The bonus-point try was a soft one, with Blues hooker James Parsons’ throw from a defensive lineout going straight to opposition flanker Adam Thomson, who found no one between him and the line.
A yellow card to Highlanders centre Phil Burleigh for a professional foul sparked a late Blues comeback.
Props Tevita Mailau, when the Blues were a man up, and Tony Woodcock, three minutes from time, both got over the line, but it was too little, too late for the home side.
HIGHLANDERS 27 (Hosea Gear 2, Tamati Ellison, Adam Thomson tries Chris Noakes 2 cons pen) bt BLUES 20 (Tevita Mailau, Tony Woodcock tries Gareth Anscombe, Lachie Munro cons Anscombe 2 pens) at Eden Park. Referee: Glen Jackson.