DUNEDIN, New Zealand (AP) — The Auckland-based Blues fanned their faint hopes of winning the Super Aotearoa title Sunday when they beat the Dunedin-based Highlanders 32-21 to take a bonus point from a must-win match.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders came close to sealing the title Saturday when they beat the Hamilton-based Chiefs 32-19 to move seven points clear atop the table with a match in hand. In winning Sunday’s match by five tries to two, the Blues kept alive the title race with two rounds remaining in the 10-week season.
With no playoffs series, the team that finishes atop the table after week 10 will win the title.
The Blues scored four tries to one in the first half but struggled to shake off the Highlanders who have been tenacious this season, with a knack for come-from-behind wins.
Blues scrumhalf Finlay Christie scored his second try of the match early in the second half and that gave the Blues a more comfortable 13-point lead but they couldn’t relax. The Highlanders had trailed 12-0 after only 10 minutes but rallied to lead 13-12 after 28 minutes.
A powerful scrum gave the Blues a strong foothold in the match. They used it as the foundation for several tries and won despite lapses of discipline and a poor goal-kicking performance from Beauden Barrett who landed only three of six attempts.
A late try by Highlanders backrower Shannon Frizell kept the match alive but the Blues defense was strong enough to give them their first win in Dunedin since 2011.
“For us we knew we had to dig deep and make sure our preparation was right to play against a fast-paced and physical Highlanders team,” Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu said.
The Blues came close to scoring after only three minutes but hooker Kurt Eklund grounded the ball over the line on the foot of Highlanders’ scrumhalf Aaron Smith. Backrower Akira Ioane made good four minutes later when he drove over on the short side of an attacking scrum.
Hooker Ash Dixon scored for the Highlanders from a lineout drive and the Blues were unlucky when an apparent intercept try to flanker Dalton Papali’i was called back for an offside play.
Center T.J. Faiane and prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi finished the first half with tries for the Blues.
The second half was tighter with a try apiece and the Highlanders spent much of the last quarter testing the Blues’ defense.
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