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Crusaders leave it late to edge out Highlanders in seesaw contest

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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It took about 70 minutes for them to hit top gear, but the Crusaders have flexed their muscles with a 34-19 South Island derby victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday.

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The scoreline suggests it was a comfortable win for Scott Robertson’s men under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium, but it was anything but as the Highlanders made them work hard for their second successive win to open the Super Rugby Pacific season.

Despite the pre-match odds heavily stacked in favour of the Crusaders, it was the Highlanders that started the match with a hiss and a roar as they thundered out to a 13-point lead in as many minutes.

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A beautifully-worked try to Sam Gilbert on the back of some slick ball-playing by Mitch Hunt from a set-piece deep inside enemy territory was good reward for the dominance the hosts showed as they defended their hearts out and attacked with venom.

An additional couple of penalties by Hunt left the Crusaders almost two converted points adrift inside the opening quarter of an hour as the visitors struggled to gain momentum.

Not even the likes of Will Jordan, who was smashed  could break the defensive line, while Cullen Grace struggled early on as he gave away a plethora of penalties that put his side under pressure.

However, as the first half wore on, the more the Crusaders worked themselves back into action, and it was a David Havili line break, which eventually led to Sevu Reece’s first try, that sparked the visitors into action midway through the opening stanza.

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After losing Josh Timu to injury in the 19th minute, the Highlanders began to ensure a lengthy period of minimal possession as the Crusaders capitalised on their opponents’ ill-discipline to work their way back the game.

That came to a head when Reece skinned Marty Banks, who was Timu’s replacement and came on as a fullback, to score in the corner after some cunning running lines and distribution was enough for the Crusaders to manipulate the Highlanders’ defence.

Hunt and Crusaders pivot Fergus Burke then traded penalties to close out the half, which the Crusaders – after their stunningly slow start to the match – miraculously managed to end with a 17-16 lead.

Beginning the second half without All Blacks prop Ethan de Groot, who hobbled off shortly before half-time with what looked like an ankle injury, the Highlanders again began at lightning pace.

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Hunt and Shannon Frizell both impressed with some long-range runs inside the opening five minutes of the second half, and the former made it count by adding three points to his side’s tally.

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Both teams then applied prolonged spells of pressure deep inside each other’s half, and it looked as though the Highlanders had emerged better off when Hunt looked to have scored, but the TMO ruled it out due some impressive scrambling Crusaders defence.

That proved to be costly for the Highlanders, whose faulty lineout late in the second half was punished by the Crusaders as Leicester Fainga’anuku’s stunning offloading ability set Jordan away for a scintillating try in which he beat five defenders.

In truth, it was dismal defence by the Highlanders as they should have prevented Jordan from getting as far as he did, but it was equally indicative of the 2021 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year’s ability to strike from anywhere and everywhere.

Jordan’s try pushed the Crusaders out to an eight-point lead, which, with little more than 10 minutes to play and the momentum seemingly with the visitors, looked unassailable for the Highlanders.

That momentum only got stronger when Jordan landed an immaculate 50/22 with seven minutes left on the clock, which the Crusaders took full advantage of when reserve prop Tamaiti Williams rumbled over right by the posts.

Their ability to turn such a seesawing and tense match into a 15-point victory reflects just how dangerous the Crusaders are against fatiguing teams, which the Highlanders were after tiring themselves early in both halves.

Nevertheless, the Dunedin-based outfit shouldn’t be overly dismayed by their efforts, but it’s the Crusaders who walk away as the kings of the South Island.

Crusaders 34 (Tries to Sevu Reece (2), Will Jordan and Tamaiti Williams; 2 conversions and 2 penalties to Fergus Burke, 2 conversions to Simon Hickey)

Highlanders 19 (Try to Sam Gilbert; conversion and 4 penalties to Mitch Hunt)

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