There were some sensational individual moments during the match, but in terms of team tactics both sides looked to be still in pre-season mode. It was a disastrous first forty for the Blues, as they shipped 24 unanswered points to a rampant Highlanders. John Kirwan will have been pleased with the second half comeback, but disappointed that they didn’t come away with any points despite having opportunities.
After promising to play newcomer Benji Marshall at flyhalf, Kirwan instead chose the far more conservative option of Chris Noakes, and the former Otago man had an absolute shocker. Aaron Smith charged down a clearance attempt for an early score, and from there Noakes never recovered. He turned over the ball several times either with wayward kicks or by running intro traffic. The crooked strike to end the game summed up his forgettable day.
Blues fans must have been wondering what their selectors were thinking when they watched arguably Auckland’s standout ITM Cup star Malakai Fekitoa score a brilliant try off some loose play in the midfield. Perhaps they thought he was too similar to Francis Saili, who scored a scintillating effort himself immediately after the half to finally get his side on the scoreboard.
It’s hard to gauge the Highlanders based on that performance. They have a few class players but their forward pack looks largely underwhelming outside of the second row. Like the Blues there are still question marks about the troublesome flyhalf position, and the midfield balance doesn’t seem quite right with neither Fekitoa nor Shaun Treeby renowned as distributors. They could be the overachievers of the season, or more likely be brought down to earth by the likes of the Chiefs and Crusaders.
Luckily for the Blues things will get better. There are reinforcements on the way, with All Blacks Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, and Ma’a Nonu still to suit up, and the expected arrival of Jerome Kaino from Japan during the week should be a huge boost to squad morale. If Marshall can get some game time at no10 and Piri Weepu gets his act together at halfback, they could still prove a formidable challenge come mid-tournament. The question is whether that will be too late for this season.
HIGHLANDERS 29 vs 21 BLUES
Saturday, February 22, 06:35 GMT, Dunedin
09 mins – A. Smith try 5-0
10 mins – L. Sopoaga con 7-0
13 mins – M. Fekitoa try 12-0
14 mins – L. Sopoaga con 14-0
17 mins – L. Sopoaga pen 17-0
39 mins – B. Smith try 22-0
40 mins – L. Sopoaga con 24-0
41 mins – F. Saili try 24-5
42 mins – C. Noakes con 24-7
50 mins – P. Osborne try 29-7
63 mins – A. Ta’avao try 29-12
64 mins – C. Noakes con 29-14
69 mins – P. Tu’ipulotu try 29-19
70 mins – C. Noakes con 29-21
B. Smith (capt.); R. Buckman, M. Fekitoa, S. Treeby, P. Osborne (P. Burleigh 67); L. Sopoaga (H. Parker 67), A. Smith; K. Hames, L. Coltman (G. Robinson 56), C. King (M. Fia 56-71); B. Thorn (J. Bekhuis), J. Hoeata (T.J. Ioane 65); G. Evans, S. Christie, N. Manu (T.J. Ioane 60-65).
C. Piutau; F. Halai (T. Li 62), J. Willison (B. Marshall 59), F. Saili, G. Moala; C. Noakes, P. Weepu (B. Hall 74); O. Tu’ungafasi (S. Prattley 59), J. Parsons, C. Faumuina (A. Ta’avao 52); L. Moli (P. Tu’ipulotu 54), T. Donnelly (B. O’Connor 67); S. Luatua, L. Braid (capt.) (T. McCartney 74), P. Saili.
Referee: G. Williamson (NZRU)
Assistants: M. Fraser (NZRU) & K. McBride (NZRU)
TMO: V. Munro (NZRU)