Super Rugby: Blues stun champions Highlanders to give Umaga winning start

Reigning Super Rugby champions Highlanders (above) were upset by the Blues in the 2016 season opener.
Reigning Super Rugby champions Highlanders (above) were upset by the Blues in the 2016 season opener.PHOTO: AFP

WELLINGTON (REUTERS) - The Auckland Blues held off a late surge from the Otago Highlanders to stun the reigning Super Rugby champions 33-31 in a thrilling all-New Zealand 2016 season-opener at Eden Park on Friday.

Two penalties from fly-half Ihaia West and a 71st minute try from lock Patrick Tuipulotu were enough to turn around a 24-20 half-time deficit and give Tana 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 Ben Smith with two minutes on the clock and get within a penalty kick of victory.

It was the Blues, though, who got their campaign up and running with a win, a feat they were only able to achieve three times in 16 matches last season as they finished second last in the 15-team competition.

The competition has been expanded to 18 teams this year with the arrival of Japan's Sunwolves, Argentina's Jaguares and South Africa's Kings but New Zealand is again expected to set the standard.

The first half was a thrilling affair with plenty of attacking rugby and featuring five tries, the best two of which came from kicks.

After full-back Ben Smith had given the Highlanders an early lead with his first try, West spotted space behind the defensive line and his crosskick found full-back Lolagi Visinia who was able to release Melani Nanai for a clear run to the line.

Blues flanker Blake Gibson charged through four tacklers to score the home side's second after 26 minutes but debutant centre Teihorangi Walden evened up the try count at 2-2 just after the half hour mark.

Two West penalties looked to give the Blues a half-time lead but Highlanders scrum-half Aaron Smith chipped through from the back of a ruck and winger Waisake Naholo, who scored 13 tries last season, leapt to score his first of 2016.

The second half was a more cagey affair and when Tuipulotu forced his way over from close range it looked like the Blues would win comfortably, only for Smith to set up a tense finale.