Super Rugby Round 16 - Highlanders v Blues
Fumiaki Tanaka earns plaudits
June 2, 2013
Piri Weepu has been cleared of anything more serious than concussion © Getty Images
Piri Weepu is recovering from concussion while rival halfback Fumiaki Tanaka basks in glory after the Highlanders stunned the Blues 38-28 at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday night. The Highlanders' second win in 13 Super Rugby games this season saw them regain the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy before a crowd of 12,888 fans, the majority of whom rejoiced in watching the Blues slump to their third consecutive loss.
Weepu was accidentally kneed in the head after 14 minutes, and he was taken from the ground on a cart after a lengthy delay while he was examined by doctors, but Blues coach Sir John Kirwan said after the game: "Piri's fine. He was knocked out and obviously the doctor was concerned about his neck. But he's walking around and talking. He can't remember much but he's in pretty good shape considering." Weepu was subsequently named in the 32-man All Blacks squad to face France in a three-Test series for the Gallaher Cup, but he remains highly unlikely to be available for the first match, at Eden Park in Auckland, on Saturday, June 8.
Tanaka, meanwhile, gained the plaudits for his classy performance after being selected ahead of Aaron Smith, the 2012 All Blacks half-back subsequently named alongside Weepu in the squad to face France. "He was outstanding," Hurricanes coach Jamie Joseph said. "His reading of the game was excellent. He drove the forwards well and he was a class act. He hardly speaks any English, but he and Colin Slade dictated play well."
The Highlanders produced an extraordinary turnaround to smash the Blues after their turgid 19-18 loss to Western Force in Perth the week before. Joseph said he thought "it would be difficult to turn the disappointment of that match around, but we had the snow, three days with our families and only one training [session] this week, and it seemed to work pretty well."
Joseph also suggested the opportunity to play for silverware, the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy, had been a factor in the Highlanders' improvement, saying "Gordy was special to me from my Otago playing days; everyone knows where he's from and what he did".
"I think everyone just wanted to win that match. There was no magic switch. There was a lot of urgency, hunger to get their hands on the ball, hunger to clean rucks, hunger to re-position. And we made fewer mistakes from attacking positions in the first half. We didn't play very well in the second spell [the Highlanders were outscored 21-9] but it's difficult to maintain that urgency and vigour when you have a lead like that."
Joseph was thrilled when the Highlanders led 29-0 after 33 minutes but not so happy when the Blues scored a converted try on the stroke of half-time. "It sort of gave the Blues a slight sniff. But the guys showed a lot of composure and experience at vital times."
Kirwan described the match as: "One of those nights when we couldn't take a trick in the first half. We hardly have the ball and when we did we dropped it. The Highlanders had 80% of the possession. We showed incredible courage and commitment in the second half, but we gave the Highlanders too much of a start. It was disappointing to lose but we never gave up. I said to them at half-time that they just had to start again."
Kirwan denied complacency had been a factor in the Blues' loss to the bottom-placed Highlanders. "They just got on a roll, got over the advantage line, and we couldn't get any line speed in our defence," he said. "They played exceptionally well. We were ready to go but no excuses. It was just one of those 40 minutes." He also denied the Blues' play-off hopes were over. "I was really pleased we got a bonus point. Things have to go our way for the rest of the competition but we're not dead yet."
The Highlanders laid the foundation for victory with a superb first half (video available only in Australia)