Dunedin - The Otago Highlanders made a mockery of pre-season predictions when they opened their 2014 campaign with a 29-21 bonus point win over the Auckland Blues in Dunedin on Saturday.
Last year's whipping boys of the New Zealand conference were expected to be at the bottom of the pile again, after losing a host of All Blacks in the off-season.
Instead, they scored four tries in a stunning opening encounter against the highly fancied Blues and with the bonus point find themselves heading the 2014 conference after the first round.
The Highlanders held a commanding 24-0 lead by half-time, and unaccustomed superior position hurt them in the second half.
“We just need to learn how to control ourselves when we get a few points ahead,” captain Ben Smith said, explaining why they went off the boil as the game wore on.
Aaron Smith, one of the few All Blacks remaining in the Highlanders colours after their off-season clean out, opened the scoring when he charged down a Chris Noakes clearing kick, regathered the ball and scampered to the line.
Malakai Fekitoa, who was in the Blues squad last year without getting a start, celebrated his move south with a try on debut when he snapped up loose ball and ran 50 metres to the line.
Lima Sopoaga landed both conversions and a penalty to have the Highlanders ahead 17-0 after 17 minutes.
On the stroke of half-time Ben Smith took a close-range pass from Aaron Smith to dive over for the Highlanders' third try.
The Blues opened their scoring immediately after the restart when Francis Saili took it on himself to have a crack with a deft chip and chase in which he regathered the ball and rammed his way across the line.
As gaps began to open up in the Highlanders' defence, the Blues did not help themselves with handling lapses and it was turnover that allowed the Highlanders to launch a counter-attack that produced Patrick Osborne's bonus-point try.
Down 7-29, the Blues put their trump buy on the field, but even though Benji Marshall was able to engineer one try, with a back-flick pass leading to Patrick Tuipulotu's try not even the rugby league convert could save the Aucklanders.
Angus Ta'avao also scored in their late rush with Noakes converting both tries, although the fly-half who missed an early penalty in the game also missed one at the end which denied the Blues a bonus point. - Sapa-AFP