WELLINGTON – The Otago Highlanders beat the Auckland Blues 41-34 in a helter-skelter New Zealand Super Rugby conference season opener in Dunedin Friday.
The end-to-end thriller featured nine tries, including doubles for Rob Thompson and Teihorangi Walden of the Highlanders and Blues wing Rieko Ioane.
The Highlanders scored five to four, only managing to hold onto the lead when the frantic pace of play finally slowed in the last 15 minutes.
It continued a dismal run for coach Tana Umaga's Blues, who finished last in the conference last season and have not beaten a New Zealand side since round one in 2016.
The three-time champions have not made the playoffs since 2011 but newly anointed captain Augustine Pulu said he remained confident of improvement this season.
"We got the effort and that's all you can ask for but we're still disappointed and there's a few things we can work on," he said. "We're going to build from this."
Neither side showed any signs of early-season rust in a high-tempo opening half featuring tit-for-tat tries and five changes of lead.
The Highlanders drew first blood with a Lima Sopoaga penalty but Blues pivot Bryn Gatland soon hit back with a converted try after being set up by Sonny Bill Williams.
Thompson broke a tackle for his first try, only for Matt Duffie to regain advantage for the Blues in a movement featuring spectacular offloads from Williams and Ioane.
Thompson's second try came from a run near the half-way line that caught the Blues' defenders flat footed but the Blues again retaliated immediately through Ioane.
The Aucklanders led 24-17 at the break, with the try-fest continuing after the restart when Highlanders prop Siate Tokolahi locked up the scores at 24-24.
Ioane's second put them in front before Blues forward Antonio Kirikiri was sinbinned for high tackle on Sopoaga.
It resulted in the Highlanders stealing the ball from a Blues scrum feed then slipping it to Teihorangi Walden for a converted try that levelled the score at 31-31.
They went on the attack again and Walden latched onto a Thompson chip kick to score his second and put the Highlanders ahead again.
The sides exchanged penalties but the Highlanders were able to hold on to their buffer until the whistle.