Defending champions the Otago Highlanders slumped to a 33-31 loss against the unfancied Auckland Blues as the newly expanded Super Rugby competition opened with a shock result on Friday.
The Blues, now coached by All Blacks legend Tana Umaga, showed the Highlanders they could not expect to fly under the radar to the title like last year.
In an entertaining match in which the lead changed hands four times, the Highlanders stage a late comeback but lacked the intensity of their New Zealand rivals.
“They played really well and deserved to win, we’ve got to do better,” said captain Ben Smith, whose two-try effort made him the Highlanders’ stand-out player.
This year’s revamped, 18-team competition is expanding its horizons with new sides from Japan and Argentina, but the Blues are intent on turning back the clock to the days when they were a genuine force.
They won the last of their three titles in 2003 but have now sent a message that under Umaga they are a far more potent threat than the side that finished second last in 2015.
“We had a big emphasis on starting well and you can’t get much bigger than beating the defending champions,” said fly-half Ihaia West, who landed seven kicks to play a major part in the win.
“We’ve got a pretty young squad this year, lots of new faces and they gave it their all.”
The Blues showed attacking intent early, moving the ball around and earning a penalty, only for West to send his kick wide.
It fell to Smith to score the first points of the season, with the All Blacks fullback stretching out from a tackle to plant the ball over the tryline.
West made amends for his missed penalty when he set up Melani Nanai’s try in the 17th minute by chipping to Tevita Li, who released the winger for his score.
Powerful young flanker Blake Gibson scored the Blues’ second five-pointer in the 25th minute, bulldozing past four defenders.
Debutant centre Teihorangi Walden hit back immediately for the Highlanders, slipping through a hole in the defence, before Waisake Naholo sent them into the break 24-20 up.
After a helter-skelter first half, the second began as an arm wrestle, with two Blues penalties putting the Aucklanders ahead 26-24 with 20 minutes to go.
Patrick Tuipulotu then sealed it with the Blues’ third try just after Highlander Patrick Osborne was sin binned.
But the final minutes were tense after Smith gave the Highlanders hope with a converted try from a move that began deep within his own half to make it 33-31.
“It’s tough, it’s never not tough,” Smith said as he digested the loss.