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Freddie Burns' ruthless introduction to Richie Mo'unga and the Crusaders

By Ben Smith
Crusaders' Richie Mo'unga (2nd R) celebrates scoring a try with teammate Braydon Ennor (2nd L) during the Super Rugby match between the Canterbury Crusaders and the Otago Highlanders at the AAMI Park in Melbourne on March 3, 2023. (Photo by William WEST / AFP via Gettys Images)

Crusaders first five-eighth Richie Mo’unga was back to his destructive best on Friday night dominating the Highlanders in a near-record win, rebounding after a shock loss to the Chiefs.

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Mo’unga said he was ‘disappointed’ in himself last week in Christchurch and promptly went about making amends as seven tries piled more misery on the Highlanders in Melbourne.

The Highlanders had fight in the opening stages and trailed by just 10-3 before some Mo’unga magic took the wind out of their sail.

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New English import Freddie Burns showed some class from the boot early as his kicking game helped the Highlanders into some good field positions but it eventually backfired.

A cross-field chip kick by the ex-England first five was partially charged and failed to find a mark, the deflection bounced fortuitously into the hands of the Crusaders’ No 10 who made them pay dearly.

Mo’unga raced down the right touchline, swerving inside Burns’ first tackle attempt before a one-hand fling back inside kept the ball alive. Slick handling by the Crusaders backs saw fullback Fergus Burke finish the end-to-end try.

The counter-attacking brilliance of the Crusaders was a harsh introduction into New Zealand rugby for Burns in his first Super Rugby start after his debut off the bench last week.

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When kicks go array, you don’t want them to find the competition’s most dangerous attacking player.

A rolling maul try on half-time gave the Crusaders a 24-3 lead, but a minute after half-time a set play by David Havili and Mo’unga that targeted Burns in the backfield paid dividends.

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The Crusaders pair combined to show how attacking kicks work in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Crusaders No 12 executed a clever banana kick back across the ruck planned for Mo’unga to chase.

The All Black swooped on the bouncing ball to secure and get it down just before the dead ball line to score a brilliant try.

Burns was the only member of the Highlanders backfield and had tracked over to Havili’s side, opening up the space for the kick over the ruck.

The try wasn’t just Burns fault, the Crusaders planned kick just targeted the weakness in the Highlanders’ defensive system.

It was a ruthless introduction for Burns and the Highlanders must find answers quickly to stop the bleeding with another tough derby up next against the Chiefs.

The 52-15 defeat was just shy of a record losing margin for the second week in a row for the Highlanders.

The opening losses to the Blues and Crusaders sit as the club’s second and third heaviest losses in history, just short of the 43-point loss to the Brumbies in 1996.

“It was awesome to get the win, but more importantly to play some footy,” said Mo’unga of the win.

“The Cheifs played all the footy last week and we wanted to come out and impose ourselves against the Highlanders, so I think we did a good job.

“I was pretty disappointed in myself as a driver last week, not putting ourselves in the right areas of the field, so today is very satisfying.”

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