Seven years ago, Gordon Hunter, an integral part of Auckland and Otago rugby, sadly passed away from Cancer. It was that year in 2002 that the Highlanders won their only match at the Blues fortress of Eden Park.
Since then, the clash between the two sides has been commemorated with the Gordon Hunter Trophy. There is much significance in the confrontation, with the trophy having so much relevance to the respective teams, but the added spice was in the permutations on the Blues and Highlanders seasons.
Win, and move into the top four. Lose, and potentially fall as far 10th on the table at week’s end.
The Blues—and New Zealand rugby—received good news before kick-off, with prop Tony Woodcock cleared to play. The news certainly seemed to galvanise the home team, who started with all guns blazing.
In the first minute, the Blues hit a Highlanders ruck with unbridled ferocity, forcing a turn over. From here it was spun out, batted on by Jimmy Gopperth, who then sped it out wide to Rudi Wulf.
The All Black wing ran it hard up the tram tracks, who then passed it on to All Black Isaia Toeava who scored in the corner.
It was the second week in a row that the Highlanders had conceded a try in the first minute.
The Blues, who had their bye in week nine, have looked a different team in the last two weeks. Pat Lam made no secret that the coaching staff and the players had taken a hard look at themselves over the extra weeks break.
While there was the almost traditional lack of occasional structure from the Blues, their hallmark traits were displayed in abundance.
Ferocious defence, hard hitting at the ruck, and plenty of players wanting to carry the ball; if not hard and straight, then on exquisite running angles.
The Highlanders, who have been making a fairytale charge to the finals, finally had their Achilles heel exposed. A weakness that had been highlighted in the early rounds of the Super 14—that of being bereft of X factor players.
Such players that the Blues have in abundance.
While pre match it was said that this was the case of team spirit and unity (the Highlanders), against individual brilliance (the Blues), the reality is that unity can be formed, but individual brilliance does not come overnight.
The Blues had both at Eden Park.
The Highlanders struggled to impose themselves against the Blues, and this frustrated their captain, All Black halfback Jimmy Cowan.
He was constantly in the ear of Australian referee Stu Dickenson. In the 60th minutes, Cowan hit Blues first five Jimmy Gopperth late and with a shoulder.
While the offence certainly deserved a card, one must wonder if the red card issued was Dickenson’s way of emphasising that he didn’t appreciate the vigour in which Cowan argued his decisions.
It is a loss that almost kills the Highlanders playoff hopes, for they would have to win all of their remaining games to qualify for the top four.
But it was the inability to structure their attack and game, for over a month so precise, that will arguably be the death knell for their season.
Again though, it was New Zealand teams that were showcasing what the Experimental Law Variations are for. Quick decisions with free kicks, aggressive ball carrying, and an eagerness to run the pill, irrespective of their field position.
Rugby is such an attractive game if played at pace, and while the patterns of the match lost shape at times, the vigour and enthusiasm to keep the ball in play is something that Australian and South African teams need to note.
As do the Soothsayers who run the game in the North.
Scoring play by play:
First minute: Try -Toeava
Second minute: Conv – Gopperth
Fourth minute: Pen – Berquist
10th minute: Try – Gopperth
11th minute: Conv – Gopperth
27th minute: Yellow Card - Hall
44th minute: Pen – Berquist
51st minute: Try – Moa
52nd minute: Conv – Gopperth
59th minute: Red Card – Cowan
78th minute: Try – Rocokoko
Blues: 26 (halftime 14)
Tries: Toeava, Gopperth, Moa, Rokocoko
Cons: Gopperth 3
Highlanders: 6 (halftime 3)
Pens: Berquist 2