WELLINGTON • Defending champions Otago Highlanders slumped to a 31-33 loss against the unfancied Auckland Blues as the newly expanded Super Rugby competition opened with a shock result yesterday.
The Blues, coached by All Blacks legend Tana Umaga, showed the Highlanders they could not expect to fly under the radar to the title like last year.
In an entertaining match in which the lead changed hands four times, the Highlanders staged a late comeback but lacked the intensity of their New Zealand rivals.
"They played really well and deserved to win, we've got to do better," said captain Ben Smith, whose two-try effort made him the Highlanders' outstanding player.
This year's revamped, 18-team competition is expanding its horizons with new sides from Japan and Argentina - including the Singapore co-based Sunwolves, but the Blues are intent on turning back the clock to the days when they were a genuine force.
They won the last of their three titles in 2003 but have now sent a message that under Umaga, they are a far more potent threat than the side who finished second from bottom last year.
"We had a big emphasis on starting well and you can't get much bigger than beating the defending champions," said fly-half Ihaia West, who landed seven kicks to play a major part in the win.
"We've got a pretty young squad this year, lots of new faces and they gave it their all."
Two penalties from West and a 71st-minute try from lock Patrick Tuipulotu were enough to turn around a 20-24 half-time deficit and give Umaga a winning start to his reign as Blues coach.
The Highlanders were reduced to 14 men after winger Patrick Osborne was sin-binned for the last 10 minutes but still rallied to score a brilliant converted try through Smith with two minutes on the clock and get within a penalty kick of victory.
"It's tough, it's never not tough," he said as he digested the loss.
In Sydney, ACT Brumbies laid down a marker to the rest of Super Rugby with a 52-10 demolition of last year's losing finalists Wellington Hurricanes in their season opener at the Canberra Oval.
The Brumbies, who had the meanest defence in the competition last year, all but shut down the high-octane Hurricanes attack and ran in seven tries to earn a bonus point and a small measure of revenge for their semi-final defeat last season.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS