Super Rugby
Tana Umaga makes winning start as Blues coach
ESPN Staff
February 26, 2016
The Highlanders' Ben Smith celebrates a try, Blues vs. Highlanders, Super Rugby, Eden Park, Auckland, February 26, 2016
Ben Smith Scored the first points of the 2016 Super Rugby season
© Getty Images

Tana Umaga made a winning start as Blues Super Rugby coach after his young team withstood a late charge from the defending champions at Eden Park in Auckland.

The Blues led by nine points with nine minutes to play after Ihaia West had converted a try from Patrick Tuipulotu, a minute after Highlanders winger Patrick Osborne had been sent to the sin bin, pinged for being offside at the ruck, but the visitors touched down a high-octane 60-metre score from Ben Smith six minutes later, his second of the match, and Hayden Parker converted from the sideline to give the reigning champions renewed hope.

The Highlanders turned the ball over in the final phase, however, and the Blues kicked the ball out to draw the curtain on a tremendously entertaining season-opener.

Blues captain James Parsons described the result as a "good start", saying he was "pretty proud of the group ... just stoked we hung in their for the 80".

Highlanders co-captain Smith said the Blues "played really well, they really deserved to win", but he denied the hosts' victory over the champions, after finishing 14th on the ladder in 2015, showed the New Zealand Conference was more competitive than ever.

"It's always tough," he said. "It's never not tough."

Smith had earlier drawn first blodd for the Highlanders, scoring after No.8 Liam Squire had produced a couple of strong carries, but the Blues struck back with two tries of their own, the first from deep downfield after West's cross-kick was snapped up by full-back Lolagi Visinia, who sent winger Melani Nanai over. Then young flanker Blake Gibson barged his way over after a couple of snipes by busy half-back Bryn Hall.

Blues win thrilling opener against the Highlanders (video available only in Australia)

The Highlanders hit back with their own double, with inside centre Teihorangi Walden, who was solid on his Super Rugby debut, finishing off an attack with a neat dummy. Waisake Naholo, whose 13 tries last year were a big part of the Highlanders' drive to the title, again showed his sharp scoring ability in pulling in a kick from Aaron Smith to score.

The free-wheeling first half gave way to a tense battle before the climactic denouement.

Super Rugby: Round 1 Preview

The Blues, behind 24-20 at halftime, added to their firepower early in the second spell by introducing their star reserves of midfield back Rene Ranger, prop Charlie Faumuina and loose forward Akira Ioane, and the hosts began to claim momentum - with Ranger and Ioane attracting plenty of attention when they carried the ball.

The penalties began to mount against the Highlanders, and West landed two of them to put his side 26-24 ahead with a quarter to go.

The visitors produced spirited defence, repelling one raid of 20 phases, only then to have Osborne sin-binned and see Tuipulotu, back from the hip injury that cruelled his Rugby World Cup hopes, put the Blues more than a score ahead; it was to prove crucial.

AAP contributed to this report.

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