AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — The Auckland-based Blues captured their first Super Rugby title in 18 years by beating the Dunedin-based Highlanders 23-15 on Saturday in an all-New Zealand final of this season’s trans-Tasman tournament.
Blake Gibson's try three minutes from the end clinched the win after the Highlanders, trailing 13-6 at halftime, rallied with three penalties in seven minutes to lead 15-13 after 66 minutes.
A penalty to replacement flyhalf Harry Plummer gave the Blues the lead again in the 70th minute and Gibson’s try, after a break from No. 8 Hoskins Sotutu, sealed the win when Plummer’s conversion created an eight-point margin.
Time ran out for a Highlanders’ comeback and the Blues celebrated in front of a home crowd of 36,000 at Auckland’s Eden Park.
“This is a weight off our shoulders,” the Blues’ All Blacks backrower Dalton Papalii said. “To be honest, we had a tough start in Super Rugby Aotearoa but we had a second chance at a bit of silverware and to come away with a win like that ... it just goes to show we believed in ourselves.
“When we had to dig deep, we trusted each other and we trusted the process and we came out on top.”
The Blues won Super Rugby in 1996, rugby’s first year as a professional sport, again the following year and for a third time in 2003. But the years since have been lean for New Zealand’s largest and richest franchise, which has become a graveyard for coaches as it fruitlessly pursued a fourth crown.
Each of the Blues’ four New Zealand rivals has enjoyed Super Rugby success since 2003; the Crusaders six times, the Chiefs twice, the Hurricanes once, and the Highlanders when they won the full four-nation tournament in 2014.
The Blues again came up short of the final in this season’s New Zealand domestic tournament — Super Rugby Aotearoa. But they won all five matches against Australian opponents in the regular season of the trans-Tasman competition to reach the final which they won by two tries to nil.
“It’s a pretty surreal feeling to have a full Eden Park like this. It brought us home,” Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu said. “This is something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time and we’ve got to enjoy it.”
It’s unlikely this Blues team will be remembered among New Zealand’s better championship sides. The trans-Tasman competition is likely to be a one-off, replaced next year by a 12-team competition including two Pacific Island teams. The prize the Blues collected Saturday will become a novelty in their trophy cabinet.
Most neutral fans supported the Highlanders in a David-and-Goliath contest; the Blues had eight All Blacks in their match-day squad, the Highlanders only four.
The Blues had an overwhelming advantage of possession in the first half but came away with just one try as the Highlanders, playing with typical tenacity, managed to just hang in the match.
They were on the wrong end of several refereeing decisions. In the 23rd minute, Highlanders captain Ash Dixon, playing his 100th match, was shown a yellow card for a high tackle on Blues flyhalf Otere Black, though the challenge appeared to take Black on the shoulder.
Less than 10 minutes later, Blues winger Bryce Heem tackled Highlanders flyhalf Mitch Hunt in the air, a possible red card offense, but the Highlanders received only a penalty.
The Blues had pressure on the Highlanders at set pieces for most of the match. In the 16th penalty, from scrum ball close to the Highlanders line, Black kicked cross-field to winger Mark Telea who was outside a narrow Highlanders defense. Fullback Josh Ioane dashed across in cover but glanced off Telea as he scored.
The Blues missed an important penalty at the start of the second half and that preceded a momentum shift which saw the Highlanders snatch the lead with penalties.
Plummer helped win the match for the Blues with his late penalty and conversion.
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports