The Blues, boasting a stacked starting XV featuring 13 All Blacks, made the most of Forsyth Barr Stadium’s dry conditions to earn a 60-20 win over the Highlanders.
Despite the star-studded line-up, it was Telea causing the Highlanders – and perhaps All Blacks selectors – headaches with his impressive runs all night on the right wing as he racked up two tries, two assists, 13 defenders beaten and 221 running metres.
After a strong finish to 2022 saw him earn, and make the most of, an All Blacks call-up, Telea’s pace and power got the Blues out to an equally-strong lead as he crossed over for the first try of the evening in the 13th minute before playing a key role in their second score off a loose ball from the Highlanders which Finlay Christie sparked.
The Highlanders were then caught napping minutes later when the Blues took a penalty quickly and handed the ball to Beauden Barrett who kicked for the left corner and watched on as Caleb Clarke got a chance to show off his own speed, beating two defenders to recover the pill and dive over to score.
Rieko Ioane then got in the action as he finished another counter-attacking piece of magic following a nabbed intercept from his brother Akira who moved the ball on to his hungry backline. Telea again steaked down the right wing before popping a no-look pass to his midfielder, allowing Ioane to go in to score and push the lead out to 31-6 inside half an hour.
Things looked to be going from bad to worse for the Highlanders after Folau Fakatava was controversially denied a try by referee Paul Williams who said the southern halfback made a double-movement as he outstretched to score but their fortunes started to turn minutes later when Blues lock Cameron Suafoa was yellow carded for infringing near his line.
That saw the Highlanders strike back through Mitch Hunt and soon after, having set up camp once more deep in the Blues’ 22 for more than five minutes after the halftime hooter had gone, they earned another advantage with Roger Tuivasa-Sheck sent off for 10 as well for a similar offence.
Down two and on their last warning, the Blues simply couldn’t keep the Highlanders at bay from the ensuing scrum and with a Josh Timu try, the hosts looked to be back in the hunt down only 31-20.
Still down a man to start the second half, another inspired Telea run allowed Barrett to get the Blues going again with an early penalty before another Highlanders error.
Soon after with Tuivasa-Sheck back on the pitch, another mistake from the home side gave the Aucklanders a lineout five metres from the line which Marcel Renata converted into five points.
The Highlanders looked destined to respond after a lengthy build up deep inside the Blues half but once again they proved to be their own worst enemies, letting the pressure fizzle out with another dropped ball just metres from the line.
The new pace of the 2023 season – a major goal of lawmakers heading into the year with changes to the set piece and other time-consuming areas of the game – appeared to start showing in the second half for both sides as players-to-ground and hands-on-knees became more prevalent.
The Blues insisted on finishing strong though with Dalton Papalii scoring in the 70th minute before Telea streaked away to score a second from halfway after lining up an intercept perfectly minutes later.
Telea wasn’t finished though, launching another attack from inside his half to set up Ioane for a second as well in the final minute of the match and bring up 60 points for the Blues.
The contest wasn’t without some concerns for both sides and All Blacks coach Ian Foster with Akira Ioane leaving the game in the 29th minute in some discomfort, though what severity it is remains to be confirmed. Highlanders prop Ethan de Groot also had medical attention just before halftime.
On a more positive note for Foster though was Barrett’s strong performance at No.10 and with the kicking tee as he finished with 25 points on the back of seven conversions, many of which were from the sidelines, and two penalties to go with his try.
But make no mistake, tonight was Telea’s night – and Foster will certainly have noted that.
Highlanders 20 [Josh Timu, Mitch Hunt, tries; Sam Gilbert 2 con, 2 pen]
Blues 60 [Mark Telea 2, Rieko Ioane 2, Beauden Barrett, Caleb Clarke, Marcel Renata, Dalton Papalii tries; Beauden Barrett 2 pen, 7 con]