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Wet weather caused many knock-ons and mistakes, and these only increased the longer the match went on.
The Highlanders were steering down the barrel early in the second half, trailing 28-3, but they managed to get their hands on the ball in the final 30 minutes.
The coaches fielded virtually two different teams in each half and the Highlanders side which played the second 40 minutes would have felt more satisfied.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph said it was a messy match which was marred by the weather.
''But they way we played in the second half is the way that we want to play the game at this level,'' he said.
''In that, we had to be pleased and some guys put their hands up.
''But they could watch the game in the first half and would have got frustrated with what they had seen.
''It was hard though for those who went out first. They had to get a flight out this morning and play straight away.''
The Crusaders scored four tries, two of them from turnovers when the Highlanders were hard on attack.
A lack of ball security at times by the outside backs would have been concerning for Joseph, and any more of those when the competition starts in two weeks will be costly.
The Highlanders' set piece was a mixed bag.
The scrums stood up well against some quality opposition but the lineouts struggled against some tall timber.
Joseph praised the abrasiveness of some of his players and there were some big hits put in by both teams.
With the rain falling for most of the game, it was hard to string many passing movements together and it became trench warfare the longer the game went on.
The Crusaders had looked assured in the first 20 minutes and Israel Dagg scored their first try when the Highlanders coughed up the ball and Dagg found himself unmarked and scampered 80m to score.
Crusaders winger Nafi Tuitavake then scored right on the cusp of halftime when another Highlanders attack broke down and he ran 70m to dot down.
When Kieron Fonotia scored under the posts from a Colin Slade grubber five minutes into the second half, it looked grim for the men in blue.
However, as the second half went on, the Highlanders got more of the ball and hooker Ged Robinson burrowed over after Tom Franklin stole the lineout. Near the end of the game, centre Malakai Fekitoa ran a nice line to score.
Fekitoa impressed and flanker Gareth Evans was busy, while there is plenty of competition in the locking department with Josh Bekhuis, Franklin and Brad Thorn playing well.
Joseph said Trent Renata, who missed yesterday's game because of a stomach bug, or Richard Buckman would be called into the squad to replace Buxton Popali'i who had pulled out of rugby for the rest of the year due to impending heart surgery.
Number 8 Elliot Dixon left the field with a hamstring injury.
The Highlanders complete their pre-season with a match against the Warratahs in Newcastle this Friday.
Super 15: Pre-season scores
Crusaders ... 28
Israel Dagg, Andy Ellis, Nafi Tuitavake, Kieron Fonotia tries; Tyler Bleyendaal 3 con, Colin Slade, con
Highlanders ... 15
Ged Robinson, Malaki Fekitoa tries; Lima Sopoaga con, Willie Ripia pen