A Benji Marshall-inspired comeback has fallen short in his Super Rugby debut, as his Blues were shocked 29-21 by the Highlanders in Dunedin.
Marshall, who starred at five-eighth during an 11-year NRL career, was injected at fullback with 21 minutes remaining to help the Blues launch a late surge after they trailed 24-0 at halftime on Saturday night.
The former Kiwis captain produced some nice touches, including a trademark flick pass which sparked a try to reserve forward Patrick Tuipulotu, but he couldn’t carry the error-plagued Blues to victory.
It was an encouraging result for a Highlanders side featuring five players new to Super Rugby and four others making their first appearance for the side.
They won just three games last year to finish 14th despite boasting a squad with more accomplished players than on this year’s roster.
The southerners virtually pulled out of sight when they scored their fourth try through new wing Patrick Osborne to earn a bonus point in the 50th minute.
It was to be their last points but they did enough to hold out a Blues side who scored late tries through reserve tight forwards Tuipulotu and Angus Ta’avao.
Inside centre Francis Saili scored the first of the Blues’ three second-half tries with a superb solo try soon after halftime.
However, their frustrating night was summed up after the final hooter when five-eighth Chris Noakes missed an easy penalty shot which would have given his team a bonus point.
The Highlanders played without possession for long periods but were the more clinical side on attack.
All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith scored the first try when he charged down a Noakes clearing kick and scooted away from the hapless No.10.
Outside centre Malakai Fekitoa doubled the advantage to 14-0 after slicing through the Blues defence on the halfway line.
Smith was at his best on the stroke of halftime when a sharp cut-out pass put fullback Ben Smith over.
The Highlanders have won four of their last five games against the Blues, including a 38-28 win at Dunedin in both teams’ final match of last season.
Highlanders management will be concerned after 39-year-old lock Brad Thorn left the game midway through the first half with a rib injury.
The Blues have a worry of their own after captain and flanker Luke Braid was assisted from the field late with what appeared to be a serious knee injury.