BRISBANE – Scott Higginbotham became the first forward to score 40 Super Rugby tries on Friday as the Reds snatched victory over the Blues, while the Highlanders and Bulls played out a draw that dented both teams’ chances of making the playoffs.
The veteran No 8 bagged two tries, including a match-winner with four minutes left, to help his side edge the Auckland-based team 29-28 and end a 15-game losing streak against New Zealand opposition.
In Dunedin, the Highlanders scored four tries to three in a 24-24 stalemate, with two apiece for Waisake Naholo and Josh McKay and Handre Pollard’s boot keeping the Bulls in touch with three conversions and a penalty.
Defeat for the Blues ended any hope they had of making the finals, with the Reds also out of contention, barring a miracle, after a match that may have been the last home game for inspirational captain Samu Kerevi.
He has been strongly linked with a move to Suntory in Japan after this year’s World Cup, and his departure will be a huge loss.
“For this team and this state to get that win means a lot because it’s been a long time coming,” Kerevi, who was in tears at the final whistle, said of the New Zealand win drought.
“We have just an exceptional group of young men here who are really humble and hard working.”
The Blues might have been without rested All Blacks duo Rieko Ioane and Patrick Tuipulotu, but they came out firing and scored a converted try after just two minutes when Blake Gibson barged over from a pick-and-drive.
Tanielu Tele’a got them another before the hulking Higginbotham, who will play for Bordeaux next year, scored his 40th try following a lovely offload from Jock Campbell.
Further tries for the Blues’ Augustine Pulu and the Reds’ Taniela Tupou sent them into the break with the home team trailing 15-21.
The Reds hauled themselves into the lead early in the second stanza, with Bryce Hegarty getting a converted try, before Pulu darted over from close range for his second to restore the Blues advantage.
As the clock ticked down Higginbotham broke away for his second five-pointer to ensure he went out with a bang in his final home game in Queensland colours.
In Dunedin, the Bulls scraped a second straight draw after a 22-22 stalemate against the Blues last week, costing them valuable points in the tight South African conference.
The result lifted them to fifth on the overall ladder with a pack of rivals close behind, meaning next week’s final-round match against the Lions could be decisive to their hopes of making the playoffs.
They came back from 14-0 down against the Highlanders, but even with Pollard returning from a calf injury, they were unable to edge ahead at a venue where they have not won since 2007.
The Highlanders could sneak into the top eight with a win over Waratahs next week, should other results go their way, but against the Bulls again failed to display the dominant form that drove them to the title in 2015.
While they played at a frantic pace, attacks constantly stalled due to turnovers and handling errors.
McKay opened the scoring in the 12th minute when he latched on to Aaron Smith’s chip kick and the same tactic worked again 10 minutes later, this time with Sio Tomkinson providing the kick and Naholo the try.