In what is becoming a heartbreaking habit, the Blues put themselves in a position to close out a tight game only for it to slip agonisingly out of their grasp as they were defeated 30-27 by the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday night.
With 10 minutes to go and the Blues leading 27-25, replacement back Kurt Baker appeared to shove Rene Ranger in the back to prevent him from grounding the ball in his in-goal as the Highlander dived on the loose ball to score the match-winning try.
You could not fault the effort, intensity and desire of the Blues who threw everything they had at the staunch Highlanders, but errors at crucial times continue to be their Achilles heel as the squandered countless attacking opportunities.
In what became a see-sawing affair dictated by Bryce Lawrence who had to call for a replacement whistle in the second half, Mike Delany and Gareth Anscombe traded countless shots at goal as the lead changed hands nine times during the match.
The acid was on the Blues to front for tonight’s clash after slumping to their sixth loss in seven games last week, and they made their intent known from the outset.
Ma’a Nonu got himself into the game early with a number of trademark busts up the middle of the field, and when the Highlanders fluffed their own scrum on their 10 metre line, the All Black midfielder was on hand to pounce on the ball.
From there Peter Saili threw a lovely cut out pass to Hadleigh Parkes who crashed over in the corner as the Blues claimed a 5-0 lead after eight minutes.
However the Highlanders’ response was swift and effective as Hosea Gear sliced through a poor defensive line before offloading to Sean Treeby who shrugged off George Moala to score.
Returning to New Zealand following a stint in Japan, Mike Delany slotted the sideline conversion and two further penalties to give his side a 13-5 lead.
Three consecutive penalty kicks by Blues sharpshooter Gareth Anscombe got the Blues right back into the match before Delany slotted a penalty kick three minutes before the end of the half to give the home side a 16-14 lead at the break.
Penalties continued to dominate the second half as Bryce Lawrence refused to tolerate indiscretions at the breakdown, with Delany and Anscombe slotting two more penalty kicks each before the Blues looked to have struck the killer blow with a try after 53 minutes.
The injection of Piri Weepu at halfback in place of Alby Mathewson reaped immediate rewards as he barked the orders to the forwards and marshalled the team around the field expertly.
After a patient build up as the forwards worked in tight and inched closer towards the try line, Weepu popped a lovely ball up for Rene Ranger who burst onto it at pace and used all his strength to crash over for the try.
Delany’s sixth penalty goal of the night got the home side to within two points of the Blues before the match-winning try came with 20 minutes to go as Kurt Baker was awarded a dubious try.
Video replays clearly showed the replacement wing had pushed Rene Ranger in the back as he went to ground the ball in his own in-goal, but Bryce Lawrence had only asked the TMO to adjudicate on the grounding of the ball and the try was awarded.
It was a huge setback for the Blues but they fought their way back into the match and got themselves in a situation to clinch the win with a five metre scrum after the siren had sounded.
But they just could not execute the match winning play as the Highlanders managed to turn over the ball and claim the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy for the first time in six years.
The Blues now face the Reds at Eden Park on Friday night (kick-off 7.35pm)