It took a pair of tries from George Bridge in as many minutes and a yellow card to Sio Tomkinson at the turn of the hour mark for the Crusaders to shift the momentum of the game and swing it in the hosts’ favour.
Prior to that, it had been an unexpected onslaught from the Highlanders, who surprised many to take the lead into half-time and scupper numerous Crusaders attacks throughout the opening 60 minutes.
Despite being unable to finish any higher or lower than fourth place, the unfancied Dunedin club made their intentions clear in the opening minute of the match by bashing their way through the opposition forward pack from the kick-off.
Just as the clock ticked over the minute mark, All Blacks loose forward Shanon Frizell had powered his way over the chalk with Richie Mo’unga trailing helplessly behind him.
It was an emphatic start to the match that illustrated how the Highlanders weren’t going to lie down and let the reigning Super Rugby champions run them over.
That set the tone for the fixture, with both sides flexing their attacking prowess in the early stages, but the Highlanders showed their counter-attacking quality through the speed of Jona Nareki.
The electric left wing picked off a Crusaders pass with precision and burned the chasing Reece down the sideline in a 72 metre foot race to push the away side out to a 10-point lead.
Two penalties Mo’unga cut the lead down by six points at half-time, but the Crusaders could have taken the lead early in the second half were it not for some defensive magic by Josh McKay.
Having splintered the Highlanders’ defence, the Crusaders looked certain to score when Will Jordan set free Hall with nothing but pasture between him and the tryline.
Using his blistering pace, though, McKay chased the halfback down and swatted the ball free from his grasp as he dived for the line, somehow preventing the home side from taking the lead.
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That might have been costly for Scott Robertson’s men when Michael Collins capitalised on some solid build-up play to crash over from short range, extending the Highlanders’ buffer by nine points.
Then came the moment of madness from Tomkinson, who had impressed all match long with his physicality on defence.
He let it spill over the top when he blindsided Oli Jager with a shoulder charge in the lead-up to a George Bridge try scored from inside his own territory.
It was a brutal hit that forced Jager to leave on a stretcher and earned Tomkinson a yellow card, which put the Highlanders in a precarious position with their lead dented to just two points with 14 men on the park.
The Crusaders didn’t need a second invitation to exploit that numerical mismatch, as Bridge soared over for his second following some good continuity shown between the likes of Mo’unga, Jordan and Luke Romano.
With all the momentum in the Crusaders’ favour, the Highlanders’ task of re-claiming the lead grew tougher and tougher, no matter how hard they tried to score.
Whether it was Frizell’s ruthless carries or Aaron Smith’s energetic presence, nothing could pierce the Crusaders’ defensive line,
It all proved too much by the last 10 minutes, which was when the final blow was handed to Aaron Mauger’s side as Braydon Ennor flew over for an easy try off the back of a lineout drive.
The result puts the Crusaders out of reach of the Blues and Hurricanes on the overall standings, but there will be no shortage of anticipation for the blockbuster season finale between the former two sides at Eden Park next week.
As for the Highlanders, they will look to cap off their season with a strong showing against the Hurricanes in Dunedin in six days’ time.
Crusaders 32 (Tries to George Bridge (2), Richie Mo’unga, Braydon Ennor; 3 conversions, 2 penalties to Mo’unga)
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