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The Highlanders rolled to a 40-12, six-tries-to-two win over the Crusaders yesterday in an extremely useful - and, most importantly, injury-free - clash before heading to South Africa tomorrow to prepare for the resumption of Super rugby.
North Otago rugby fans made the most of their rare opportunity to see the Highlanders in their patch, and were treated to a superb display in slippery and gloomy conditions.
The Highlanders outclassed the Crusaders in all facets of the game but were particularly emphatic in their defensive organisation and ball-handling.
Leading the way were one cult hero and one startling lookalike of whom more will almost certainly be heard.
Marty Banks relished a rare start at first five-eighth and guided the Highlanders around the field with aplomb, while unheralded halfback Te Aihe Toma - bearing an extraordinary resemblance to All Black star Aaron Smith - impressed with his energy and crisp passing.
Toma, the Bay of Plenty rookie, grabbed his chance in the absence of Smith back-ups Fumiaki Tanaka and Josh Renton.
"I was particularly pleased with our 9s in their first game of Super rugby, if you like,'' Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph said, also referencing reserve halfback Jamie Booth.
"They performed really well in difficult conditions.
"He [Toma] is only young. He was in his first year of ITM Cup last year and caught our eye.
"We were already committed to our halfbacks but the injuries to Fumi and Renton have created an opportunity for a young guy like him.''
Banks has played second fiddle to All Black first five Lima Sopoaga in recent times but showed he can be a very capable replacement when needed.
"He hasn't had a lot of rugby. He's had a couple of injuries, and obviously Lima has played the majority of our games.
"Again, in conditions like that, for Marty to produce a performance like that is a good sign,'' Joseph said.
Other Highlanders to impress were indefatigable captain Shane Christie and Gareth Evans in the loose, while Jason Emery relished his opportunities in the midfield.
Emery scored late in the first half to break a 7-7 deadlock, and the Highlanders took control of the game with two sizzling tries in the third quarter as the game lost its shape with multiple substitutions.
Ryan Tongia produced a cracking run to the line, and Toma was on the end of a lovely backline combination to make it 28-7.
The Crusaders pulled one back but the Highlanders capped a commanding win with tries to reserve backs Fa'asiu Fuatai and Fletcher Smith in near darkness.
Nemani Nadolo made a couple of big breaks for the Crusaders, much to the delight of the crowd, but the visitors missed too many tackles and struggled against a well-drilled Highlanders defence.
"I think our defence showed the intent of the team in terms of where we are in the competition,'' Joseph said.
"It's really tight at the top of the competition, and we've got a massive challenge ahead of us. With that in mind, I think everyone got their attitudes right and the commitment levels were high.''
The Highlanders will confirm their squad this morning for the road trip to Africa and Argentina.
Highlanders v Crusaders
Rob Thompson, Jason Emery, Ryan Tongia, Te Aihe Toma, Fa'asiu Fuatai, Fletcher Smith tries; Marty Banks 4 con, Smith con
Matt Todd, Mitchell Hunt tries; Richie Mo'unga conHalftime: Highlanders 14-7.