The Highlanders final 40-20 scoreline loss to the Crusaders at home didn’t reflect the quality of the effort shown by the home side.

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Under the roof at Forsyth Barr, the Highlanders and Crusaders engaged in a furiously paced derby that offered a thrilling contest.

Pulling the strings for the Highlanders was Aaron Smith, making the most of the fast surface to dial up the tempo for the home side. It was such an impressive display from the All Blacks 9 that many fans were willing to re-give him the title of world’s best.

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Dan Carter after his first game of club rugby since 2014

The performance was summed up by a passage of play in the first half where Smith snatched a loose line out throw at the back of the line out and broke through the line past the tail.

Finding a support runner, Smith was there to recycle the next ruck at a rapid pace while the Crusaders were still reeling.

His quick recycle freed the Highlanders backs and allowed Ngane Punivai to score in the corner.

Fans described Smith as ‘different gravy’ and as an ‘unbelievable player’ while claiming that the old Aaron Smith is back and every other 9 in New Zealand will have to prepare to ride the bench.

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The Highlanders were still in the match at halftime down 17-14 but failed to capitalise on a golden opportunity only five metres out when Jonah Nareki failed to pass early enough with a guaranteed try on offer.

They were still in the match only down 26-20 until two tries in the final five minutes sealed the match for the Crusaders.

Given the way Smith was playing, it wasn’t lost on many fans that the decision to take him off with the game still in the balance may have been a pivotal call for the Highlanders. One fan called the decision ‘bold’ but also ‘wrong’ at the same time.

The loss was the Highlanders’ second successive after going down to the Blues by 3 points in a fighting effort last week against the Blues.

Following their opening win against the Chiefs in Super Rugby Aotearoa, hopes were high that the Highlanders may have turned the corner despite a 1-4-1 start to the regular Super Rugby season.

The road ahead in Super Rugby Aotearoa doesn’t get easier with two away games against the Hurricanes and the Chiefs, both currently winless and desperate to get off the bottom of the Super Rugby Aotearoa table.

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