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Crusaders hold off Highlanders fightback to pick up tense victory in Super Rugby Aotearoa

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

The Crusaders have opened their Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign with a tightly-contested 26-13 victory over the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.

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In a match played in a typically boisterous atmosphere, as is customary for South Island derbies, the Crusaders began in dominant fashion, racing out to a 14-0 lead inside the opening 20 minutes through tries from Codie Taylor and Bryn Hall.

Ill-discipline from the Crusaders and clinical attacking by the Highlanders closed the gap by half-time, though, as Shannon Frizell and Connor Garden-Bachop crashed over to make it 14-10 at the break.

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Highlanders vs Crusaders highlights | Super Rugby Aotearoa | Round One

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Highlanders vs Crusaders highlights | Super Rugby Aotearoa | Round One

A Mitch Hunt penalty early in the second half made it a one-point game, while the Highlanders’ bench applied pressure on the reigning champions, with Folau Fakatava, Josh Ioane and Liam Squire leading the charge from the reserves.

However, a Sevu Reece try extended the Crusaders’ lead, and a disallowed try to Sio Tomkinson due to a controversial knock on decision called against Fakatava dampened the hosts’ spirits.

The result was the out of reach in the final 10 minutes when replacement hooker Brodie McAlister burrowed over from a rolling maul to ensure the Crusaders began their title defence in the best way possible.

However, discipline issues, which led to two yellow cards, will be a key focal point for Scott Robertson’s men leading into next week’s clash with the Hurricanes.

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Nevertheless, the performances from the likes of Taylor and Reece were sensational, with the pair setting the standard for their peers as they eye a fifth straight Super Rugby title.

As for the Highlanders, their inability to capitalise on their overwhelming territory – just over 71 percent of the match was played inside the Crusaders’ half – needs to be addressed before next week’s match against the Chiefs in Hamilton.

An a positive note, Garden-Bachop had a Super Rugby debut to remember, while fellow wing Jona Nareki was equally as impressive with ball in hand.

Highlanders 13 (Tries to Shannon Frizell and Connor Garden-Bachop; penalty to Mitch Hunt)
Crusaders 26 (Tries to Codie Taylor, Bryn Hall, Sevu Reece and Brodie McAlister; 3 conversions to Richie Mo’unga; yellow cards to Ethan Blackadder and Scott Barrett)

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Jon 2 hours ago
Sam Cane was unfairly cast in Richie McCaw's shadow for too long

> McCaw’s durability and sustained excellence were unique, but we seemed to believe his successors were cut from the same cloth. It’s easy to forget McCaw was just as heavily critiqued for the last two years of his career. The only real difference was his captaining criticisms and his playing criticisms happened at different times, where Cane was criticized for a few things in both areas for all of his last 4 years. This was also heavily influenced by another McCaw esque presence, in Ardie Savea, being in the team and pushed out of his original position. It could be said we essentially didn’t have the 3 prior years with Ardie as world player of the year because he was changing into this new role. I say “original” position as despite him never coming out and saying his desire is to perform his role from, that I know of, clearly as part of a partnership with Cane as 7, I don’t think this was because he really wanted Cane’s playing spot. I think it most likely that it comes down to poor All Black management that those sort of debates weren’t put to bed as being needless and irrelevant. It has been brought up many times in past few months of discussions on articles here at RP, that early calls in WC cycles, to say pigeonhole an All Black team into being required to have a physical dynamo on defence at 7 (and ballplyaer at 8 etc) are detrimental. In the end we did not even come up against a team that threw large bodies at us relentlessly, like why we encountered in the 2019 WC semi final, at all in this last WC. Even then they couldn’t see the real weakness was defending against dynamic attacks (which we didn’t want to/couldn’t give 2019 England credit for) like the Twickenham Boks, and Irish and French sides (even 10 minutes of an English onslaught) that plagued our record and aura the last 4 years. It really is a folly that is the All Blacks own creation, and I think it pure luck, and that Cane was also such a quality All Black, that he was also became an integral part of stopping the side from getting run off the park. Not just rampaged. > The hushed tones, the nods of approval, the continued promotion of this nonsense that these men are somehow supernatural beings. I bet this author was one of those criticizing Cane for coming out and speaking his mind in defence of his team that year. Despite the apparent hypocrisy I agree with the sentiment, but I can only see our last captain as going down the same road his two prior captains, Read and McCaw, have gone. I am really for Cane becoming an extra member to each squad this year, June, RC, and November tours, and he is really someone I can see being able to come back into the role after 3 seasons in Japan. As we saw last year, we would have killed for someone of his quality to have been available rather than calling on someone like Blackadder. Just like the Boks did for 2023.

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