Written by Max Sharp.
At long last, we're beginning to get a sense of normality, for the first time in over 9 months. New Zealand's Government is now allowing crowds to attend matches, while we now have all six New Zealand-based Super Rugby teams playing! The Highlanders didn't really show up to the first half of this game against the Blues, but they then turned it into a genuine contest, the result was eventually a 25-32 loss. This was a well-fought effort, so let's have a read on who stood out for the men from the deep south!
Highlanders Player Ratings
Loosehead Prop - Daniel Lienert-Brown (8/10)
The Blues lost two scrums off their own feed, thanks to pressure applied by Lienert-Brown at the scrum. Though he made just 2 tackles, he was at the rucks so quickly. Not a bad running game either, 14 metres, 1 defender beaten, 1 clean break and 4 carries.
Hooker - Liam Coltman (4/10)
A wonky Highlanders' lineout isn't normally seen, while Coltman only completed 2 of the 4 tackles he attempted. He tried his best through, with 10 metres from his 6 carries. Even the experienced players can have a bad game.
Tighthead Prop - Jermaine Ainsley (6/10)
Ainsley had a strong scrum, the scrum was the best thing the Highlanders had going. Ainsley had one of those games where he did just did the basics of his role, though to a decent standard. 8 metres from 4 carries and 6 tackles could be improved on; a missed tackle on Telea lead to the Blues scoring.
Lock 4 - Manaaki Selby-Rickit (3/10)
He's not having a good season so far. Though his 4 carries amounted to 6 metres, he could have done far more; his team had 56% possession for the game. His mere 2 tackles did however, come from the team's tactics. Off with 23 minutes to go.
Lock 5 - Josh Dickson (5/10)
A bit of an average performance, though Dickson never gave up. He showed a strong work rate, with 7 metres from 8 carries and also, 7 tackles. Could have done better in the lineout. Games are usually lost up front, this was indeed the case for the Highlanders.
Blindside Flanker - Shannon Frizell (5/10)
Performances like these don't bode well for those on the fringes of test selection. Frizell carried hard, with 24 metres and 2 defenders beaten from 8 carries; 5 passes was a nice touch too. But he is all-too-often, MIA on defence. Yet again, no turnovers, whilst he missed a schoolboy-level tackle on Beauden Barrett, who then scored a try.
Openside Flanker - James Lentjes (7/10)
Lentjes was one of the few forwards to play well, he sacrificed his attacking stats to get his side going forward, his 6 metres and 1 defender beaten may have been from 6 carries, though he did complete all 8 of his tackles, while he was the only starting forward to win a turnover.
Number 8 - Gareth Evans (6/10)
He was promoted to start after Marino Mikaele-Tu'u was ruled out. Evans' running game was world-class, with 33 metres off 7 carries, but the easy penalty he gave away in the 1st minute essentially set the tone for the game. 3 tackles wasn't enough either. A very mixed performance.
Halfback - Aaron Smith (6/10)
Not a vintage performance for Smith either. He box-kicked far too much, even inside the opposition half on two occasions. His running was active when needed though, 9 metres, 1 clean break and 2 defenders beaten isn't exactly bad off 3 carries. He's growing into the season.
First-Five - Mitch Hunt (5/10)
Yes, his stats looked incredible on paper. 53 metres, 2 defenders beaten off just 6 carries, alongside 17 passes, 8 tackles and a turnover. He did, however, miss three easy tackles, while the 2/6 goals he missed were pretty easy kicks. Start Banks next week.
Left Wing - Mosese Dawai (7/10)
The 23-year-old didn't get a lot of opportunities but he made them count. Stood up well against a vicious defence line, while he ran his 47 metres, beat 1 defender and made 1 clean break off just 4 carries. Should come off his wing more, Fiji will have their eyes set on him for a test cap if he can do that.
Second-Five - Scott Gregory (8/10)
Yup, this is definitely his best position. Gregory was the Highlanders' top tackler with 9, while his 5 passes and 1 offload both lead to dangerous attack patterns heading towards the Blues. Also bagged 42 metres off his own 9 carries. He's improved so much in 2 years.
Centre - Fetuli Paea (6/10)
Ongoing game time has served him well. All 3 of Paea's tackles were huge hits, while he ran 25 metres and beat 1 defender from 7 carries. Though he mis-timed one particular tackle, Tonga would do well to give him a re-call. One bad forward pass didn't reflect his whole game.
Right Wing - Ngane Punivai (5/10)
If you want a hot-and-cold performance, look no further than this one. Punivai's 43-minute performance saw him run 23 metres from just 3 carries and win a classy turnover to open the second half. But on the other hand, he made just 1 tackle and missed one of the easiest I've seen on Beauden Barrett.
Fullback - Sam Gilbert (8/10)
Gilbert is growing more and more into the 15 jersey and it's apparent with his confidence. He ran 48 metres and beat 2 defenders from only 7 carries and though he made just 2 passes and 2 tackles, his tactical kicking was perfect.
Reserve Hooker - Andrew Makalio (7/10)
His 30-minute shift proved to be effective, he carried pretty hard, with 10 metres from 3 carries. Makalio only had time for 1 pass and 1 tackle; the side's second-half possession rate of 61% caused this. Good lineout throwing, the Highlanders were smart to sign him.
Reserve Loosehead Prop - Ayden Johnstone (No rating)
Waikato's NPC-winning skipper came on with only 17 minutes to go. Not enough game-time to rate a tight-five forward. Good to have him back.
Reserve Tighthead Prop - Josh Hohneck (No rating)
Hohneck was more involved with the game than Johnstone with 4 metres off 2 carries and 1 tackle, but didn't play enough to be rated; he was also subbed on with 17 to go.
Reserve Lock - Fabian Holland (6/10)
An axis of Makalio-Holland really stabilised the Highlanders' lineout; making for a good debut for Holland, who has come in on a short-term deal. The Netherlands-born lock ran 3 metres and beat 1 defender off his single carry, made 1 tackle, while his ruck speed was impressive. Scariest part is, he's still 19 years old, young enough to be Bryn Evans' son. Frightening.
Reserve Loose Forward - Hugh Renton (No rating)
Defence is Renton's greatest strength; he was only able to make 1 tackle due to his side's possession rate. He played only 16 minutes, not enough time for a rating.
Reserve Halfback - Folau Fakatava (6/10)
Although he didn't exactly do much with the ball himself, Fakatava's impact seriously turned the game around. His 20 passes were short, sharp and strong, getting his team some deadly quick-ball.
Reserve Utility Back - Vilimoni Koroi (No rating)
Koroi came off the bench for Dawai with 9 minutes remaining and ran 7 metres and beat a defender from only 2 carries. Not enough to rate him on.
Reserve Outside Back - Freedom Vahaakolo (6/10)
Vahaakolo has at long-last debuted for the Highlanders, the fans have been calling for it for ages. Though he ran some strong lines, they were often shut down. He did his best though, give him a crack again next week.