WELLINGTON, June 19 (Reuters) - - The Auckland Blues outmuscled the Otago Highlanders 23-15 in an attritional battle in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final on Saturday to snap an 18-year title drought and delight a crowd of 36,000 at Eden Park.
Mark Telea and Blake Gibson scored the tries but it was the heavy lifting done by the Blues pack that earned the north island powerhouse their first piece of silverware since the last of their three Super Rugby titles in 2003.
The 2015 Super Rugby champion Highlanders, boasting only one All Black to the eight in the home team, stormed back in the second half and took the lead at 15-13 after 67 minutes to set up a tense finale.
Harry Plummer slotted his second penalty three minutes later to edge the home side back in front, however, and Gibson barged over the line for a converted try with three minutes left on the clock to clinch the inaugural title.
"I haven't scored many tries but that one felt pretty good, hey?" said replacement loose forward Gibson.
"The boys showed a lot of grit in the second 40 and lucky we scored that try because we wouldn't want to be defending the line in the last couple of minutes."
The visitors made a flying start to the all-New Zealand final and took an early lead through a Mitch Hunt penalty but the Blues were soon dominating possession and rolling through the phases.
With the Highlanders scrambling on their line in the 17th minute, Blues flyhalf Otere Black lofted a crosskick over to Telea on the left touchline and the winger jinked past Josh Ioane to score.
Highlanders co-captain Ash Dixon, playing his 100th Super Rugby match for the team, was shown a yellow card for a high tackle on Black in the 24th minute and was possibly lucky not see red.
Two more penalties gave the hosts a 13-6 halftime lead but the Highlanders rattled off three-pointers of their own from the hour mark to wrestle back the momentum.
The Blues had been counter-rucking to great effect all evening, however, and it was at the breakdown that they secured the turnover ball that allowed Gibson to cross for the clincher.
"It's just a weight off your shoulders," said Blues flanker Dalton Papalii. "When we had to dig deep, we trusted the boys and trusted the process and came out on top."
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney, editing by Hugh Lawson)