The Crusaders have fought back from a 26-point half-time deficit to defeat the Highlanders 28-26 and reclaim the Farmlands Cup in front of a packed crowd in Temuka.
The Temuka Rugby Club was bursting at the seams as locals clambered to see the South Island rivals go head-to-head in their first pre-season clash of the year.
Those in attendance didn’t leave disappointed, as the match hung in the balance right until the final kick of the contest.
It seemed as though the result wasn’t going to be as tight as it eventually turned out to be when the Highlanders roared out to a 26-0 lead at half-time.
Numerous players from the Dunedin side’s backline starred in the opening stanza, which led to some scintillating team tries.
Spearheaded by highly-touted halfback Folau Fakatava was among those to stand out as he provided a high-energy display and put teammates into holes with his crisp, flat passing.
In doing so, he gave the Highlanders plenty of momentum with ball, with midfielders Patelesio Tomkinson and Fetuli Paea – playing against his former side – constantly crashing the Crusaders defensive line.
Electric wing Jona Nareki also made a nuisance of himself through his attacking kicks and sublime footwork, and was rewarded for his efforts with a try from a Fakatava chip kick into the in-goal area.
Livewire fullback Connor Garden-Bachop was perhaps the best of the lot, though, with the youngster making a good impression of himself as he made his first appearance under the eye of head coach Tony Brown.
The collective skills of the entire Highlanders backline was enough to put wing Ngatungane Punivai, another former Crusader, into the corner to score a well-worked first half try following some slick counter-attacking and passing.
The visitors’ other two tries came from hooker Liam Coltman, who – despite the odd wobbly throw at the lineout – capitalised on his forward pack’s cohesion and dominance at the set piece.
Three conversions from four attempts by ex-Crusaders playmaker Mitch Hunt put the Highlanders in good stead at the break, but an overhaul in personnel from both teams for the second half sparked a monumental comeback from the hosts.
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The introduction of Timoci Tavatavanawai, a wider training squad member for the Crusaders who is yet to play at Mitre 10 Cup level, proved crucial for the reigning Super Rugby Aotearoa champions.
Despite his inexperience at first-class level, the former Fiji U20 wing hardly looked out of place as he scorched the Highlanders’ defence on two separate occasions to grab a brace in his first outing as a Crusader.
Just how often Tavatavanawai will feature for Scott Robertson’s side this year remains to be seen given the depth of quality in his outside back stocks, but he certainly caught the eye as the Crusaders clawed their way back into the game.
Equally as impressive was the barnstorming run made by 140kg rookie prop Tamaiti Williams, who burst well into Highlanders territory from inside his own half to set up fellow front rower Fletcher Newell for the Crusaders’ third try.
Trailing by just five points and dominating the second-string Highlanders side, the Crusaders took full advantage of their opponents’ ill-discipline to bag a try, scored by Sione Havili, from a rolling maul with only a couple of minutes left to play.
An unblemished kicking record off the tee from one-test All Blacks first-five Brett Cameron edged the Crusaders ahead by two points, but the Highlanders had the chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat when they were handed a penalty on full-time.
Replacement first-five Caleb Makene stepped up to take the shot at goal from about 45 metres out on the angle, but his attempt fell short of the mark as the ball hit the padding on the post.
That allowed the Crusaders to boot the ball out of play to reaffirm their status as Farmlands Cup champions for a third year running.
The victory came with a cost, though, as loosehead prop Oli Jager left the field with a potentially serious injury and was unable to put weight on his left foot.
As for the Highlanders, locks Josh Dickson (head knock) and Bryn Evans (ribs) were the only casualties, although both are expected to be back in action soon.
The Highlanders will continue their pre-season against the Hurricanes in Alexandra next week, while the Crusaders will face the Blues in Auckland.
Crusaders 28 (Tries to Timoci Tavatavanawai (2), Fletcher Newell and ??; 4 conversions to Brett Cameron)
Highlanders 26 (Tries to Liam Coltman (2), Jona Nareki and Ngatungane Punivai; 3 conversions to Mitch Hunt)
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