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Blues end 18-year title drought with dramatic win over Highlanders

The Blues captured their first Super Rugby title in 18 years by beating the Highlanders 23-15 on Saturday in an all-New Zealand final of this season’s trans-Tasman tournament.

Blake Gibson’s try three minutes from the end clinched the win after the Highlanders, trailing 13-6 at halftime, rallied with three penalties in seven minutes to lead 15-13 after 66 minutes.

A penalty to replacement flyhalf Harry Plummer gave the Blues the lead again in the 70th minute and Gibson’s try, after a break from No. 8 Hoskins Sotutu, sealed the win when Plummer’s conversion created an eight point margin.

Time ran out for a Highlanders comeback and the Blues celebrated in front of a home crowd of 36,000 at Auckland’s Eden Park.

“This is a weight off our shoulders,” the Blues’ All Blacks backrower Dalton Papalii said.

“To be honest, we had a tough start in Super Rugby Aotearoa but we had a second chance at a bit of silverware and to come away with a win like that… it just goes to show we believed in ourselves.

“When we had to dig deep, we trusted each other and we trusted the process and we came out on top.”

The Blues won Super Rugby in 1996, rugby’s first year as a professional sport, again the following year and for a third time in 2003.

But the years since have been lean for New Zealand’s largest and richest franchise, which has become a graveyard for coaches as it fruitlessly pursued a fourth crown.

Each of the Blues’ four New Zealand rivals has enjoyed Super Rugby success since 2003 – the Crusaders six times, the Chiefs twice, the Hurricanes once, and the Highlanders when they won the full four nation tournament in 2015.

The Blues again came up short of the final in this season’s New Zealand domestic tournament — Super Rugby Aotearoa.

But they won all five matches against Australian opponents in the regular season of the trans-Tasman competition to reach the final which they won by two tries to nil.

Super Rugby Trans Tasman final highlight

“It’s a pretty surreal feeling to have a full Eden Park like this. It brought us home,” Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu said.

“This is something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time and we’ve got to enjoy it.”

It’s unlikely this Blues team will be remembered among New Zealand’s better championship sides.

The trans-Tasman competition is likely to be a one off, replaced next year by a 12 team competition including two Pacific Island teams.

The prize the Blues collected on Saturday will become a novelty in their trophy cabinet.

Most neutral fans supported the Highlanders in a David-and-Goliath contest – the Blues had eight All Blacks in their matchday squad, the Highlanders only four — AP


Blues 23 (Mark Telea, Blake Gibson tries; Otere Black con, pen, Harry Plummer con, 2 pens)
Highlanders 15 (Mitchell Hunt 4 pens, Josh Ioane pen)

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