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On a warm evening and in front of an enthusiastic crowd at their first game of the season in the city, the Crusaders cruised to a 26-8 halftime lead without having to get into top gear before the visitors began making inroads despite the yellow card issued to loose forward Shannon Frizell for a tip tackle on Braydon Ennor.
The visitors survived that 46th-minute indiscretion without conceding a point and then scored an excellent try in the left corner via Jona Nareki as the Crusaders, perhaps thinking the game was already won, let their concentration levels slip badly.
Until then they had a bonus point and thoughts may have drifted to next weekend's bye. This was their third consecutive derby match. However, the bonus point was re-gathered, and game made safe, by a try from replacement loose forward Sione Havili with six minutes remaining, although the extra point nearly disappeared after the final hooter as the Highlanders made a last-ditch break.
It meant the reunion of Crusaders' past and present who gathered in Christchurch to celebrate Super Rugby's quarter century and their franchise's part in it, could continue as was probably expected. It was their team's 33rd consecutive victory at their home stadium.
This was the Highlanders' second defeat in three matches, while the Crusaders have dropped one – to the Chiefs – in four. They again look championship material providing they can play for 80 minutes, something they haven't managed yet.
Prior to Havili's try the Highlanders' comeback was led by halfback Aaron Smith, the Highlanders' most dangerous attacking weapon when he decided to put his boot away and back himself or the unmarked teammate next to him. Frizell, who survived a first-half head injury assessment, also showed up, with fullback Michael Collins solid.
It was some turnaround because until halftime it was all the Crusaders, although they were assisted by some substandard defending.
If it wasn't the outstanding Jack Goodhue breaking tackles and offloading, it was similarly brilliant David Havili or George Bridge or Ennor. No 8 Tom Sanders was carrying with skill and intent, as was hooker Codie Taylor.
The Crusaders had so many strike weapons it was almost an embarrassment of riches and while the Highlanders began well – as if they knew they needed to be razor-sharp and alert to every opportunity to have any chance, a feeling probably brought home in pre-season when they red and blacks put 50 points on them, it didn't last beyond a Mitch Hunt penalty and Collins' first-half try.
The red and blacks even had the perfect answer to what could have been a goalkicking issue. With Mo'unga still not taking the tee due to recent groin and knee niggles, and Havili picking up a right knee issue after an early conversion, it was left to Bryn Hall to kick for goal and he looked as comfortable in doing so as Robertson would have felt in the coaches' box.
It was a little sloppy at times for the Crusaders, but one positive apart from a bonus point victory would have been their discipline – they conceded nine penalties to the Highlanders' eight, a relatively good ratio for them this season.
Crusaders 33 (Codie Taylor, Tom Christie, Braydon Ennor, George Bridge, Sione Havili tries; David Havili con, Bryn Hall 2 cons, Mitchell Drummond con
Highlanders 13 (Michael Collins, Jona Nareki tries; Josh Ioane pen