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Highlanders, Melbourne open with Super Rugby wins

February 23, 2018

DUNEDIN, New Zealand (AP) — Tei Walden came off the bench to score two second-half tries and lift the Dunedin-based Highlanders to a 41-34 win over the Auckland-based Blues on Friday in the first match of the Super Rugby season in New Zealand.

Walden touched down twice while the Blues were reduced to 14 men by the sin-binning of replacement Antonio Kiri Kiri. That pushed the Highlanders ahead for the last time in a match which featured nine tries and six lead changes.

In the other Friday match, the Melbourne Rebels beat the Queensland Reds 45-19 in the Australian conference.

Center Rob Thompson also scored two tries for the Highlanders, while backrower Akira Ioane had a pair of tries for the Blues.

The match showed what a strong influence rule changes implemented since last season are likely to have on the tournament this year. The changes heavily favor the team in possession, making any kind of contest for possession difficult, and that was reflected in the fact that both teams scored almost every time they held onto the ball.

Bryn Gatland, son of Wales coach Warren Gatland, scored the first try after 14 minutes of end-to-end rugby, answering an early penalty by Lima Sopoaga for the Highlanders. Gatland also kicked four conversions and two penalties for 19 points.

Thompson’s first try put the Highlanders again, then Matt Duffie scored a try which reclaimed the lead for the Blues at 14-10. Thompson’s second put the Highlanders ahead 17-14 and Akira Ioane ran off the back of a five meter scrum to make it 21-17 to the Blues.

A late penalty to Gatland, who kicked six goals from six attempts, gave the Blues a seven-point advantage at halftime.

Prop Siate Tokolahi leveled the scores with a try to the Highlanders three minutes into the second half. Ioane restored a seven point margin for the Blues before Kiri Kiri’s sin-binning changed the course of the match.

Walden touched down in the 56th and 62nd minutes to give the Highlanders a 38-31 lead and they held on in a late exchange of penalties.

“The Blues were 100 percent physical and I think we kept attacking and backing ourselves,” Highlanders captain Elliot Dixon said. “I think we started the second half very well, but we’ve still allowed a few soft options that we’ve got to work on.

“The New Zealand conference is a tough competition, and if you’re off your game slightly, you’re going to get beaten.”

At Melbourne, Queensland captain Scott Higginbotham was sent off in the ninth minute for a shoulder charge.

The Reds had scored first through center Duncan Paia’aua, but lock Lukhan Tui’s yellow card in the 22nd minute for a dangerous tackle resulted in the Rebels scoring three tries against the depleted defense, with winger Sefa Naivalu crossing twice.

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