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Nonu looked fit, strong and most importantly more than interested as the Highlanders made a marked improvement from last week when they lost heavily to the Chiefs.
Nonu scored the first try of the game, brushing aside a couple of tacklers, and made metres whenever he had the ball.
The Highlanders pulled ahead in the second half after leading 19-14 at the break.
As befitting a pre-season match there was plenty of inaccuracies and passes went to ground more than once.
But the Highlanders looked the better side while the Crusaders, missing some of their stars, were subdued.
Also impressive for the Highlanders were halfback Aaron Smith, flanker Joe Wheeler while John Hardie got round the paddock in his first game at this level in nearly a year.
Luke Romano picked up two tries for the Crusaders but they look as though they need plenty of work before the season starts.
Highlanders 38 (Hayden Parker 2, Ma'a Nonu, Buxton Popoali'i, Hosea Gear, Lima Sopoaga tries, Sopoaga 2 con, Parker 2 con) Crusaders 21 (Luke Romana 2 tries, Kieran Fonotia try, Tom Taylor 2 con, Tyler Bleyendal con) Halftime: 19-14.