Late Crusaders blitz downs Highlanders

Aaron Smith breaks through the middle during the first half against the Crusaders in Dunedin....
Aaron Smith breaks through the middle during the first half against the Crusaders in Dunedin. Photo: Getty Images
The Highlanders waited two years for the chance to host their southern neighbours. Two years too long after this instant classic under the Dunedin roof.

Southern derbies always cultivate an extra edge. This breathless match, in which the Highlanders led 17-14 at the break, was no different.

Five years to the day since their first and only Super Rugby title, the Highlanders threw everything and more at the Crusaders.

So often that is not enough, though. Just ask the Chiefs who did likewise in Christchurch last week. To take down the Crusaders opposition must reach near perfection; nail all their chances and even then hope a slice of luck and the referee is on their side.

The final quarter of this game the Crusaders came into their clinical own, controlling the possession, pace and tempo to grind out their third straight Super Rugby Aotearoa victory. Once again they showed all the hallmarks we've come to expect from the three-time defending champions – a level of composure that sets the bar for others to match.

Highlanders wing Jona Nareki will regret his decision to throw the dummy with two men unmarked outside him midway through the second half. It was a movement that would have given the Highlanders the lead – instead the Crusaders did enough to snuff it out and the home side had to settle for three points.

Crusaders winger Will Jordan continued his impressive form with two tries. Photo: Getty Images
Crusaders winger Will Jordan continued his impressive form with two tries. Photo: Getty Images
There were other defining moments, of course, but with the Crusaders prevailing five-tries-to-two thanks to two Tom Christie second-half strikes, Nareki's decision was a key turning point.

The other came from Crusaders halfback Mitchell Drummond, who fired a brilliant cutout pass that gave Sevu Reece enough space to score the game's decisive try.

Aaron Smith led the Highlanders out as captain and he was then their spark all night. His passing, kicking, running, organisation and defence – one bootlace tackle on Codie Taylor in particular – was a class above. On this occasion, the All Blacks halfback could no wrong and it was a surprise to see him replaced for the closing stages. Smith had great support from Shannon Frizell, Pari Pari Parkinson and Dillon Hunt who all carried and attacked the breakdown relentlessly.

For the Crusaders, Will Jordan continues to light up the New Zealand derby competition. Despite being moved from fullback to the wing Jordan was equally involved and influential as in recent weeks, popping up all over the park and finishing the match by claiming his brace with another runaway try.

Taylor, the All Blacks hooker, also delivered another standout display.

The brutal nature of these derby games claimed further casualties with Crusaders fullback David Havili limping off after a break while the Highlanders lost lock Josh Dickson, who has been influential in running their lineout this season, to a serious ankle injury.

The Crusaders brought more poise to the initial exchanges and they were rewarded when Jordan snuck over in the corner for the opening try. The visitors' scrum did the damage early with several huge shunts – the Highlanders not helped in this department by losing Dickson.

The Highlanders needed to settle and they did just that with a double strike. Frizell, the All Blacks blindside, stepped up with three telling carries in the same movement. With the final one he burst through Michael Alaalatoa's tackle to power his way to the line.

That try turned the tide with the Highlanders enjoying a run of possession. From their overthrown lineout Smith swooped with his speed and anticipation to break the Crusaders line and from the resulting breakdown the red and black wall could not stop quick hands sending Ngane Punivai over to give the Highlanders the lead.

Discipline was an issue for the Highlanders as they conceded a 13-7 penalty count – many of these infringements at the breakdown – but they had every right to take umbrage with referee Mike Fraser after he missed an obvious forward pass from Taylor in the lead up to Richie Mo'unga's third first-half penalty.

In a match such as this it's easy to feel for the Highlanders, who fall to consecutive defeats after pushing the Blues all the way at Eden Park last week.

Let's hope it's not another two years before these southern rivals get the chance to again do battle under the roof.

Crusaders 40 (Will Jordan 2, Tom Christie 2, Sevu Reece tries; Richie Mo'unga 3 cons, 3 pens)
Highlanders 20 (Shannon Frizell, Ngane Punivai tries; Mitchell Hunt 2 cons, 2 pens)
HT: 14-17

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