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'They got the jump on us': Crusaders overwhelmed by fast-starting Highlanders

By Tom Vinicombe
Scott Robertson and Aaron Smith. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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The Crusaders may be sitting pretty atop the Super Rugby Pacific ladder after two wins from two matches but neither of their victories over New Zealand rivals the Hurricanes or Highlanders came easily.

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Last weekend, the Crusaders slowly strangled the life out of the Hurricanes in Dunedin before letting their foot off the gas in the final 12 minutes, when the men from Wellington scored 19 unanswered points. The end result was a 42-32 win for the Crusaders but the margin of victory could have been much more comprehensive had the Crusaders maintained the same standards throughout the game.

In contrast, the Crusaders had to fight tooth and nail for their points against the Highlanders, with the home team racing out to a 13-0 lead before the Crusaders were able to claw their way back into the action to take a narrow 17-16 lead into the break. In a change of fortunes from last week, the Crusaders scored the final 17 points of the game and grabbed an unexpected bonus point late in the piece.

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Los Pumas star Pablo Matera joins the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
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Los Pumas star Pablo Matera joins the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

According to head coach Scott Robertson, the Crusaders got exactly what they expected from the Highlanders on Friday night, with the southerners trying to maintain their momentum throughout the fixture.

“[It was a] high-paced, highly-skilled, physical game,” Robertson said following the match. “We talked about the start and they got the jump on us, all the little things that we know is going to happen: long throws over the lineout, quick throw-ins, quick taps, all the things that the Highlanders are renowned for.

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“They got the jump on us, put us under pressure with discipline, then we fought our way back with a couple of nice touches and then the second half, the last 20 we were right back to our strengths.”

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The discipline issues will be of some concern to Robertson and his coaching staff with the Crusaders perhaps lucky to escape the encounter without anyone spending time in the sin-bin. For the second week in a row, the Crusaders’ penalty count hit double figures, with the bulk of those infractions occurring during the opening stages of the game when they were put under pressure by the speed at which the Highlanders were playing the match.

“Yeah, [the Crusaders struggled] at times,” Robertson acknowledged. “Especially when we lost that initial contact and they got good ball off it by their blindside plays and just playing on top of you, especially with [Aaron] Smith’s pass.

“And we lost a lot of kick battles, which is something we’ll review. We’re a little bit disappointed about that in the [coach’s] box. The boys knew Hunty [Highlanders first five Mitch Hunt] can cover a lot of field with those little legs.”

Speaking of his own No 10, Robertson was again pleased with the development Fergus Burke showed on the field in his second start of the year, and just the third of his career – opportunities that have been presented thanks to the ongoing absence of Richie Mo’unga, who won’t join the competition for another week or two.

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“Ferg’s still 22 and getting better with time on the field as any player does,” said Robertson. “One good thing about Richie taking some time, it gives [Burke] an opportunity and we’re just so pleased Ferg’s taken it. He’s taken control of the team. Richie does the same. When Richie’s playing, it’s his team, and Ferg’s owned it as well. We’re building depth.”

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Robertson revealed that All Blacks hooker Codie Taylor could be back in action next weekend – timely, given Brodie McAlister suffered a dislocated finger against the Highlanders – while the timeframe for Mo’unga is slightly less certain.

“Codie’s available for selection this week and [we’ve] gotta have a conversation with Richie, if he’s available in the next week or two. He’s missing [playing].”

The Crusaders are set to take on Moana Pasifika next weekend, a team who have yet to play a competitive game since joining the competition this year thanks to Covid restrictions.

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