Blues wrap up playoffs place

Getty Images     18 Jun 2011     Getty Images

Depending on what happens in other games over the weekend, the Blues will either host a game, as third or fourth highest qualifier on Friday night, or have a week off and a semi-final the following week.

The Blues were looking for a bonus point try but an intercept by replacement halfback Aaron Smith, denied them although he was unable to add to the Highlanders' total when dragged down.

Conditions for all but the third quarter of the game were miserable with driving rain and a strong wind blowing from the east. The Blues had the better of it throughout the first half, but for all that it did little to detract from the spectacle.

A bad tactical error three minutes into the second half, playing into the wind, gave the Blues a winning boost. Second five-eighths Luke McAlister, standing at first received off a ruck formed as the result of a take by wing Lachie Munro of a clearing touchfinder by Blues halfback Jimmy Cowan.

The ball flew high, and into space. As fullback Ben Smith scrambled to get across to cover the ball bounced wickedly and the fast-following fullback Jared Payne secured the ball and was untroubled to push the home team out to a 24-11 lead.

After two penalty goals were landed by Munro to put the Blues out to 30-11, the Highlanders struck back when from a scrum five metres out from the line, replacement halfback Aaron Smith took advantage of advice from referee Bryce Lawrence. He told Smith to put the ball in quickly and down the middle. It would be his best chance.

Smith duly did, got a quick feed, took the pass from No.8 Nasi Manu and set up blindside wing Matt Saunders for his second try of the night.

The Blues paid the price for early lineout problems when the Highlanders got into Blues territory, an action utilised by halfback Cowan with a quick free kick.

The visitors got up to the line and with flanker Alando Soakai, lock Jarrad Hoeta and hooker Jason Rutledge all leading drives at the line, the ball emerged close to the line where it was flung to Saunders who dived over on a narrow blindside to score in the corner.

The Blues finally got some reward for territory in the first half after a clever kick by first five-eighths Stephen Brett. He found Highlanders wing Siale Piutau confused about whether to take it or not and he tipped the ball over the line.

The Blues won the lineout and with lock Anthony Boric twice taking the ball forward, a kick through by Payne was deflected off prop Chris King and a five-metre scrum resulted. And from that platform it was Brett who jinked through some weak defence to score in the 26th minute.

Another difficult kick down the middle of the field was allowed to bounce and the Blues pack pounced to win the ball, and as the ball was moved through the forwards with several drives, it came back to Brett who was able to run onto the ball at speed and he opened up a gap which McAlister was able to cruise through to touch down.

Cowan showed some deft touches under the conditions, especially during the first half, with some well-placed kicks that put pressure on the home team's defences and his covering work was useful as the Blues attempted to pressure from their own kicking game.

His Blues rival, Chris Smylie made the most of a rare start to give Brett good ball to run onto.

The contest between All Blacks contenders in the loose forwards Jerome Kaino for the Blues and Adam Thomson was also a bone-crunching affair with Kaino returning to his best form and Thomson shining with the example he set his pack.

Blues 33 (Stephen Brett, Luke McAlister, Jared Payne tries; Lachie Munro 3 con, 4 pen) Highlanders 16 (Matt Saunders 2 tries; Tony Brown pen, dropped goal). HT: 17-11