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The Highlanders' bizarre defensive tactic that was exploited by Crusaders

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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The Highlanders’ valiant 17-14 loss to the Crusaders was a game decided by defence as both sides failed to score any second half points, but one bizarre defensive strategy in the first half ended up costing the visitors.

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Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith was positioned to defend at centre, between second-five Scott Gregory and his side’s actual centre Fetuli Paea, during a set-piece play deep inside their own half 10 minutes before half-time.

It was from that set play that Crusaders midfielder Leicester Fainga’anuku scored his try, running through Smith to edge the hosts into the lead, with the 17-14 scoreline remaining unchanged from that point on.

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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 8
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Aotearoa Rugby Pod | Episode 8

Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall recounted what happened on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, crediting David Havili for making the read and play.

“There [were] no common pictures for us, seeing that actually,” Hall said on whether the decision to target Smith with Fainga’anuku – who is 17cm taller and 26kg heavier than the Highlanders captain -was a deliberate play by Crusaders.

“It was really good from David Havili in that moment. A lot of teams are running that play, hitting the 12 wide off a maul.

“Look at any New Zealand team at the moment off a maul, lineout strikes, everybody is hitting the 12 looking for manipulation and animation off him.

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“Davey saw that Nuggey [Smith] was defending on Leicester, in that kind of area. We had a default move that we were going to go to, but it was a heads up play from Dave and Leicester seeing that Aaron was there.

“Leicester went straight through there. To answer your question, there was no preview around us seeing that [pre-game].

“It was just great work to recognise that Aaron Smith was in the line, he’s a little bit smaller than Leicester, so we were better off with that one-on-one opportunity.”

Havili used quick hands to provide a short ball to Fainga’anuku running a hard line underneath Aaron Smith, who was able to then fend off Gregory. The 22-year-old then crashed over next to the posts.

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Former Blues hooker James Parsons said it was anecdotal evidence that showed why Havili is highly-rated by the Crusaders, as he initially thought himself that they had identified that defensive set-up by the Highlanders in pre-game meetings.

“That’s good to know, though, because you are watching that on screen, I initially thought, ‘Oh, they have previewed that,’ but to know that sort of stuff was decided on the fly does show why David Havili gets so many wraps internally from the Crusaders,” Parsons said.

The Highlanders were then left to rue a second half of missed opportunities. The Crusaders defended for large periods as the visitors enjoyed territory and possession, looking threatening on multiple occasions but just could not get the ball over the line.

Tony Brown’s side missed a chance to level proceedings when Mitch Hunt’s penalty goal attempt hit the upright, and they had more than one clean line break to set-up field position in good attacking zones.

Hunt also had the chance to level the scoreline late in the match when the Highlanders were awarded a penalty in kickable range, but they instead opted to kick for touch, only for the first-five to boot the ball dead and waste a promising opportunity.

Hall credited his side’s scramble defence as they key reason that kept them in the game after Highlanders reserve halfback Folau Fakatava came on and made a huge impact.

“There were a lot of good breaks through Folau Fakatava. When he came on, I thought he was outstanding,” Hall told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“He was really able to rip us around our heart defence.

“To be honest, probably the crucial moments were Sevu Reece’s steals in the second half. Will Jordan had three turnovers last week and Sevu Reece was able to get three steals this week.

“We are getting a lot of gains out of those turnovers. It’s been a big work-on for us with Tams [assistant coach Tamati Ellison] this year.

“Last year we didn’t get a lot of turnovers, whether that be the jackals or hunting and flooding through but this year we seem to getting a lot of them.

“Those moments at crucial times are winning us games.”

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