In the final instalment of round 3 Super Rugby Aotearoa, the Blues hosted the Highlanders at Eden Park in picturesque Auckland with the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy on-the-line.
With the Crusaders firmly at the top of the ladder, a victory for either side would ensure second place moving into round 4 and keep them within striking distance of the champions.
The hosts have had the better of their southern counterparts in more recent times securing two wins in Super Rugby Aotearoa 2020, yet interestingly the closest of those encounters was a narrow win 27-24 in the ‘City of Sails’.
That performance would have been encouraging for new Highlander’s coach Tony Brown who selected a starting side blended with youth and experience with veteran rake Ash Dixon charged with bringing a strong finish for the visitors.
In the opening stages of the match the Highlanders looked for opportunities on the fringe and found some space causing the Blues a few issues, yet the hosts defensive system adapted and wrested momentum back their way and the Blues never looked back, completely dominating the half.
They went into the sheds at 17-3 but it could have been more if it were not for a disallowed Reiko Ioane try after a pass from his brother Akira Ioane was ruled forward despite it appearing lawful out of the hand.
The second half wasn’t any easier for the Highlanders despite reserves Ash Dixon and Folau Fakatava having the desired impact, overall, the visitors were man-handled by the Blues who ran out victors 39-17.
1. Ethan De Groot – 6
Had it all to do against a formidable Blues set piece. He was outclassed but didn’t shirk it and had a few dominant moments in tight.
2. Liam Coltman – 5.5
Bit disappointing given his experience and having a starting opportunity. He tried hard, particularly in cover to defence to make up for others errors, but his lineout wasn’t functioning as it should. Had better days.
3. Siate Tokolahi – 5.5
Akin to De Groot he had a big task ahead of him and had a crack but was outclassed despite a gutsy effort.
4. Josh Dickson – 4
Off day for a player who is usually dependable. Making key mistakes to rob his side of momentum coupled with his yellow card was simply not the output his side needed today. I am sure he will bounce back but today was one to forget.
5. Manaaki Selby-Rickit – 5
For a player who has been mentioned for higher honours he failed to truly impose himself on the match. What the Highlanders needed was a big forward to take it to the Blues, the opportunity was there for him but he failed to seize it.
6. Shannon Frizell – 6.5
Arguably the best starting forward for the Highlanders, but he appeared to be trying to do it by himself at times. He should have really led that inexperienced pack better.
7. James Lentjes – 6
Tireless but didn’t really have any great impact on the game.
8. Hugh Renton – 5.5
There is a bit too this bloke, he’s a real competitor and saved a certain try with a turnover near his own line. Looked to impose himself but like Frizzell was a bit one out at times. Will be better for the run.
9. Aaron Smith (cc) – 6
Not his best day out. His passing at times appeared clunky and his option taking wasn’t always the right option in the circumstance. To his credit he got into the thick of it at times clearing out as it was required because the Highlanders at the breakdown were abysmal.
10. Josh Ioane – 6
Missed tackles, poor kicks, a try saving tackle and some visionary passing. A complete mixed bag but he has such better rugby in him. Forgettable performance and needs to find some consistency next time around.
11. Jona Nareki – 6
Off at 35 with an injury. Looked dangerous at times but was part of a Highlander’s back line that had some serious defensive deficiencies.
12. Patelesio Tomkinson – 5
Jekyll & Hyde performance. He and Collins failed to fire as either an attacking or defensive combination.
13. Michael Collins – 5
Like Tomkinson had some positive moments, but they were rubbed out by defensive misreads. Can play better, needs to play better.
14. Ngatungane Punivai – 5
You can see there is something in this player to like, but positionally wayward.
15. Connor Garden-Bachop – 5.5
Had some exciting moments in possession but was running off the back of a dominated side but the few times the Highlanders had front foot ball he looked to cash in. Credit to him.
16. Ash Dixon (cc) – 7 – Looked to lift his side and cashed in with a try off a lineout that required some skill after it appeared the play was stagnating.
17. Josh Hohneck – 5.5 – Had a crack but came on when the Highlanders were out of it.
18. Jeff Thwaites – 5.5 – Like Hohneck, did his job in difficult circumstances.
19. Bryn Evans – 6 – Looked lively for a veteran and his experience may be what the Highlanders need next time around
20. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u – 6.5 – Looked to impose himself but the dye had been cast.
21. Folau Fakatava – 7 – Outplayed Aaron Smith and looked to be the best 9 on the park out there today, despite being in a side soundly beaten.
22. Mitch Hunt – 6.5 – Was brave at the back and looked for counter attack opportunities. Fair effort.
23. Billy Harmon – 5.5 – Should start at 7 next week.
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This content was originally published here.