The Auckland Blues made it three wins out of three in Super Rugby Aotearoa with a thrilling 27-24 victory over the Otago Highlanders in front of another big crowd at Eden Park on Saturday.
The Highlanders took the contest down to the wire, but the Blues held on to top the table on 12 points, seven ahead of their opponents and the Canterbury Crusaders, who play the Waikato Chiefs on Sunday.
“The Highlanders had some good fight-back in the second half,” said Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu.
“A couple of years ago, or even last year, we weren’t able to hang on and show composure, and I’m proud of the fact that we managed to do that now.”
The Highlanders had battled back from a 22-10 halftime deficit and could have tied up the scores at 27-27 with eight minutes left on the clock if flyhalf Mitch Hunt had landed a penalty from 35 metres.
Offered another chance six minutes later, Hunt kicked for touch, only for the Blues to hold up the rolling maul and win the put-in to a five-metre scrum, allowing them to clear the danger.
Two well-matched packs fought each other into the ground and Blues flanker Dalton Papalii grabbed two tries, but there was plenty of quality on display in the backs too.
The impressive Caleb Clarke opened the scoring with a try for the Blues in the sixth minute, and it was his break that led to a five-pointer for his fellow winger Rieko Ioane just before the half-hour mark.
The Highlanders came out firing in the second half, however, and tries from Hunt and flanker Shannon Frizell inside seven minutes levelled up the scores at 22-22.
With Ioane in the sin-bin for a flagrant offside, it looked like the visitors might push on to victory but Papalii scored his second try from a catch-and-drive to set up a dramatic final quarter.