Rugby: Highlanders tumble to eighth straight loss

Ma'a Nonu of the Highlanders is tackled by Owen Franks of the Crusaders.  (Photo by Joseph...
Ma'a Nonu of the Highlanders is tackled by Owen Franks of the Crusaders. (Photo by Joseph Johnson/Getty Images)
The hunt for a victory continues for the Highlanders. For the Crusaders, a different quest - how to rediscover their attacking edge.

Despite the 24-8 scoreline, this was a scrappy, disjointed win for a team with everything to play for, and maybe that was the problem.

The Crusaders, out to snap a two-match losing streak after reverses to the Sharks and Force on the road, were so keen to put things right that they forgot how to catch and pass.

Robbie Fruean, who eased the home crowd's nerves with a try 40 seconds before halftime to help his side to a 16-0 lead, lost the ball the first two times he received it.

His was an important score given the cold and very strong easterly wind his team had at their backs.

Zac Guildford had his chances but snatched at them. He could have scored in the first half as the Crusaders maintained a massive advantage in terms of possession and territory, but grounded the ball short in the corner under pressure from the cover defence.

It all added up to a frustrating - and overly long - match for a crowd of about 15,000 in Christchurch. Referee Garratt Williamson's constant checking for replays meant the first half lasted almost 50 minutes.

The second half was more open - the Highlanders quickly replying with a try, but mistakes were ever-present and the game never sparked into life. The crowd's frustration grew every time Williamson blew his whistle or went to the TMO, which was often.

The perceived wisdom was the Crusaders would rip the Highlanders apart. They put 50 points on them in the same fixture last year. But the rustiness remains.

Israel Dagg still hasn't hit form and Fruean isn't the force of last season. Halfback Andy Ellis, who left the field briefly for a concussion check in the first half, remains slightly off his game.

Determined to score four tries for a bonus point, they are badly missing the cut and thrust of No8 Kieran Read, who will likely miss next weekend's match against the Rebels at AMI Stadium due to his toe injury.

How Jamie Joseph must wish for the Crusaders' problems, though. This was their eighth game of the season and their eighth loss. They also lost their last three last year. It is a miserable run of results and the only positive for him and his men is the fact they have a bye next week.

Their lineout was under severe pressure throughout - their first three of the match were severely disrupted, with two lost. In the first half they lost five. With the wind at their backs they huffed and puffed but were mainly stuck in defensive mode.

Discipline was a problem for the Crusaders, who had prop Owen Franks sinbinned in the first half for clouting Jarrad Hoeata with a forearm.

A Wyatt Crockett retaliation for a late hit on Andy Ellis by Chris King resulted in a penalty reversal and shot at goal for Hayden Parker, which he missed. It was the Highlanders' only scoring chance of the half.

Jason Emery's try came just after the break and as a result of a sustained attack, the little centre scooting over in the left corner.

Ben Smith's broken-field running became evident in the second half, but the Highlanders couldn't win or maintain the possession needed to put the Crusaders under pressure.

They defended their line well until a late try from replacement midfielder Tom Taylor.

It was a funny old game.

Even a pitch invader, topical after last week's farcical invasions at Perth, could barely muster the enthusiasm to break into a run before he was tackled by security. It seemed fitting.

Crusaders 24 (Robbie Fruean, Tom Taylor tries; Tyler Bleyendaal 4 pens, con)
Highlanders 8 (Jason Emery try; Colin Slade pen)

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