Two tries to Dalton Papali’i and the muscle of Hoskins Sotutu helped the Auckland Blues maintain their unbeaten run in New Zealand’s Super Rugby Aotearoa competition when they came from behind to beat the Otago Highlanders 27-24 yesterday.
Sotutu’s power to twice deny the Highlanders late scoring opportunities would have impressed not only the All Blacks selectors, but also those in England and Fiji.
The uncapped 21-year-old backrower is shaping up as a likely replacement for the now retired Kieran Read, but with a Fijian father and English mother he is an obvious target for all three countries.
After Papali’i’s second try put the Blues ahead midway through the second half, the Highlanders staged repeated attacks on the Aucklanders’ line, but in the closing minutes, a strong lineout drive was held up by Sotutu who then stole a Highlanders ball at the next lineout to ensure the Blues victory.
Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu said that his team have found a self-confidence that was missing when they were one of the worst performing New Zealand sides.
“A couple of years ago, even last year we weren’t able to hang on we didn’t have the composure. I’m proud of the fact we managed to do that now,” he said. “We’re comfortable backing our defense for long periods of time.”
It was a finish that left Highlanders skipper Ash Dixon dejected after his side had turned a 22-10 deficit at half-time into a 24-22 lead 12 minutes after the resumption.
“We had two opportunities there to go right down to the death but didn’t take our chances. I thought we did enough to get it, but obviously we came out on the other side of the scoreboard,” he said.
A succession of tactical kicks to put pressure on young Highlanders fullback Scott Gregory helped the Blues build a first-half lead with tries to Caleb Clarke, Papali’i and Rieko Ioane with Otere Black landing two conversions and a penalty.
Ioane’s try ended a long-range counterattack sparked by Beauden Barrett from the Blues 22.
The Highlanders’ first half points came from a try to Dixon converted by Mitchell Hunt, who also landed a penalty.
In the opening stages of the second half, Hunt broke through the Blues defense to score near the posts and Shannon Frizell drove over the line, and with both conversions successful the Highlanders were two points ahead.
The Blues response, with Ioane in the sin bin, was to turn to their forwards. Papali’i again obliged with a try and they clung to a three-point lead for the closing 22 minutes.
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