Highlanders' narrow win overshadows Williams' return
DUNEDIN, New Zealand (AP) — Flyhalf Marty Banks kicked 16 points as the Dunedin-based Highlanders overshadowed Sonny Bill Williams' return to Super Rugby on Saturday with a 26-20 win over the Auckland-based Blues.
Banks kicked four penalties and two conversions — six goals from six attempts — to help the Highlanders recover from a 20-13 deficit at halftime to beat the Blues for the second time this season after their 16-12 win in round three.
Williams took the field in the 54th minute for his first appearance since he was forced out of the Olympic sevens tournament in Rio de Janeiro with an Achilles tendon injury. Only a minute earlier, Banks had landed his third goal to give the Highlanders their first lead in the match at 23-20
Williams made one threatening break, snuffed out by the Highlanders' defense, but in the 71st minute made a major passing error which allowed the Highlanders to carry the ball the length of the field and set up Banks' last penalty.
That goal gave the Highlanders their final six-point margin and forced the Blues, in the last nine minutes, to chase the converted try they needed to snatch victory. The Highlanders' defense was up to the challenge and the Blues saw their fourth loss in seven matches this season to stay at the bottom of the New Zealand conference.
The Blues started strongly and, after conceding an early penalty to Banks, seized the lead in the 12th minute with a try to prop Charlie Faumuina.
Highlanders fullback Ben Smith cut the lead to three points with a try in the 28th minute before lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti scored to give the Blues the advantage at halftime.
The Blues' acknowledged shortcomings were apparent after halftime as they conceded the lead. Their set pieces were under pressure, they lacked organization on attack and their handling and discipline failed them.
"It's hugely important to us in our season to build a bit of momentum," Highlanders captain Luke Whitelock said. "We had our backs against the wall and it was a great effort to get back into the game."
The Blues saw another potential win snatched from their grasp.
"We didn't score too many points in that second half," captain James Parsons said. "We had enough opportunities to bounce back but we just didn't have quite the execution."
In an all-Australian conference match Saturday, the ACT Brumbies scored 33 unanswered points in the second half to beat the Queensland Reds 43-10.
The win, the Brumbies' 10th in a row over Queensland, moved ACT eight points clear of the New South Wales Waratahs, who lost 38-28 on Friday to the Hurricanes in Wellington.
Earlier in Tokyo, Yu Tamura kicked a penalty goal in the 74th minute on Saturday as the Sunwolves edged South Africa's Bulls 21-20 for their first win of the season.
Travis Ismaiel ran in a try in the 64th that was converted by Tiaan Schoeman to give the visitors a 20-11 lead. But the hosts responded six minutes later on a try by Takaaki Nakazuru that was converted by Tamura to cut the lead to 20-18.
The Sunwolves, who improved to 1-5, took an 11-10 lead at halftime.
Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco's try in the seventh minute gave the Sunwolves an early 5-0 lead and a penalty by Hayden Cripps four minutes later made it 8-0.
Burger Odendaalin ran in a try in the 13th that was converted by Schoeman to cut the lead to 8-7. Cripps added another penalty in the first half.