Blues beat Highlanders 27-24 in Super Rugby Aotearoa

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — Breakout star Caleb Clarke scored one try and created another as the Blues beat the Highlanders 27-24 Saturday in the third round of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

The son of former All Blacks center Eroni Clarke, Caleb Clarke has been the discovery of the season in the New Zealand professional tournament, helping the Blues to extend their overall winning streak in 2020 to seven games.

At 6 feet, 2 inches tall (1.89 meters), and weighing 235 pounds (107 kilos), Clarke is a New Zealand sevens player who has both pace and power, and poses a threat to defenses reminiscent of the All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu.

He made his presence felt immediately on Saturday when he scored the Blues’ first try after only six minutes, taking the role of a forward as he crashed through thick goal-line defense to score after the Blues built a long series of phases near the Highlanders’ line.

Clarke then showed the pace and skills of a winger when he fended one defender and broke into open space to create a 27th-minute try for winger Rieko Ioane which had the Auckland-based Blues ahead 22-10 at halftime.

The other rising star of the rejuvenated Blues, backrower Hoskins Sotutu, had a hand in the team’s third first-half try. Sotutu charged down a desperate clearing kick from Highlanders fullback Scott Gregory in the 23rd minute and his backrow partner Dalton Papali’i was on hand to recover the ball and score.

The Dunedin-based Highlanders stayed close to the Blues in the first quarter, with a try to hooker Ash Dixon. But they made too many handling errors under pressure in wet conditions and the Blues were able to continually probe holes in their defense.

The Blues typically relaxed on their lead at the start of the second half and the Highlanders scored after only four minutes.

They came close to scoring again in the 51st minute and, when the Blues lost Ioane to the sin bin, the Highlanders scored through flanker Shannon Frizell to take an unexpected lead at 24-22. That injected new urgency into the Blues who, still down to 14 men, reclaimed the lead with Papali’i’s second try.

The Highlanders had a close-range penalty in the 76th and inexplicably chose to kick for touch, losing the ball when the maul from the ensuing lineout was held up.

Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu was pleased his team had held on when the game began to turn against them in the second half.

“I think a couple of years ago, even last year, moments like that would slowly fade away from us,” he said. “We weren’t able to hold on and have the composure.

“I’m proud of the fact we’re able to do that now and hold the ball, backing our defense for long periods of time.”

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