Highlanders down gutsy Blues in DunedinNATHAN BURDON IN DUNEDIN
The Highlanders never doubted they would be up against it at Dunedin Stadium.
The Blues have been performing well below expectations this season, but they remain a team with a surplus of latent talent.
For the Highlanders, they had limped into the bye round eager for the break after an emotional but successful start to their 2012 season and the danger was always going to be how quickly they were able to find the juice which they played with in the early rounds.
In a stop-start affair under the roof, a try to replacement fullback Kurt Baker with 10 minutes to go would prove the difference in a game which lacked any momentum.
The Highlanders scraped through for a 30-27 win which has revived their season and returned the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy back to Dunedin.
Baker swooped on a loose ball in the Blues in-goal after a neat kick through from Hosea Gear which gave the Highlanders a winning lead after a see-sawing second half.
A string of penalties either side of halftime robbed the game of much of its entertainment value as both sides sinned at the breakdown.
The lead swapped four times in the space of 10 minutes after halftime as Gareth Anscombe and Mike Delany called for the tee with monotonous regularity.
It was no surprise that referee Bryce Lawrence had to call for a replacement whistle midway through the second half.
Delany, taking over the Highlanders No 10 jersey which has already seen Colin Slade and Lima Sopoaga succumb to season-ending injuries, made a great fist of his return to Dunedin via Hamilton and Japan.
After giving up an early try to Blues fullback Hadleigh Parkes after a poor scrum pass from Aaron Smith to Shaun Treeby, the Highlanders began to dominate the first half.
A superb no-look pass from Delany put Gear through and he timed the final pass to Treeby perfectly to give the midfielder a run into the tryline.
Delany's sideline conversion warmed a chilly 18,417-strong Dunedin Stadium crowd and two more penalties to the new recruit saw the home team take a 13-5 lead.
The Blues were dropping off tackles and starting to lean against rucks but then the tide began to turn.
Suddenly the Blues were able to hang onto the ball and work their way into Highlanders territory and the Highlanders were guilty of a lack of patience, giving up three routine penalties to Anscombe.
With Anscombe making the most of the opportunities the Blues had nine points in the space of eight minutes to take a 14-13 lead.
Highlanders skipper Jamie Mackintosh was finding it hard to get a bind on Charlie Faumuina and was getting frustrated at the big Blues prop boring in, but Lawrence had little sympathy, blowing a tune at the set piece.
A Delany penalty just before the break gave the Highlanders a two-point lead they perhaps didn't deserve.
Gear was a force for the Highlanders, running with brutal power throughout the game.
His impact was matched by team mate Nasi Manu, who was a wrecking ball for the Highlanders.
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