Some of the country’s biggest names make themselves known for the Blues.
The Auckland Blues, buoyed by the injection of All Blacks Ma’a Nonu and Jerome Kaino, returned to the top half of the Super 15 table when they downed the Otago Highlanders 30-12 on Saturday.
The revenge win, after losing to the Highlanders 29-21 in the first round, gave the Blues a third win from six outings, and importantly their fifth bonus point of the season, while the southerners have just two wins from five matches.
Nonu and Kaino, having their first starts of the season, had a big impact on settling a Blues side that has played an inconsistent brand of rugby so far this season.
The Highlanders had opportunities and briefly led 9-7 in the first half but in the end suffered from repeated mistakes, putting themselves under pressure against a Kaino-led Blues side intent on exploiting any turnover.
The Blues scored three tries while the Highlanders were forced to live off four penalties by Lima Sopoaga.
It was a marked improvement in defence for the Blues who went into the match with one of the worst records in the competition, leaking on average 32 points a game.
But they had only themselves to blame for an inability to pick up a four-try bonus point as the match degenerated into a messy display in a scoreless final 20 minutes.
The Highlanders best try-scoring movement came in the opening minutes with a break down the right flank that ended five metres from the line when Ben Smith’s final pass hit winger Richard Buckman in the face.
It typified the errors that filled the Highlanders game, while the Blues immediately bounced back with a fortuitous try to George Moala at the other end of the field.
Scrum-half Bryn Hall, promoted to the starting line up following news during the week that 71-Test veteran Piri Weepu had suffered a stroke, had a kick charged down but the ball ricocheted into the arms of Moala who raced 30-metres to score.
The playmaking, however, was primarily with the Highlanders in the first quarter and while they could not cross the Blues line they benefited from three Sopoaga penalties to hit the front 9-7.
But they led for only two minutes before prodigious Blues kicker Simon Hickey landed his first penalty and converted the Blues second try to Nonu for the home side to turn with a 17-9 lead at half-time.
In a flurry of scoring in the opening 17 minutes of the second half, Hickey and Sopoaga traded penalties and Charles Piutau scored the Blues third try when the Highlanders failed to find touch with a clearing kick from their own line.
Hickey, who finished the match with 15 points, landed the conversion and a third penalty to put the result beyond doubt.