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The defending champs led 14-10 at the break and withstood some intense Highlanders pressure to score a try with 10 minutes left to win the game.
Best for the Highlanders were wingers Jona Nareki and Connor Garden-Bachop, while lock Josh Dickson impressed.
The Hurricanes take on the Blues in Wellington tomorrow night.
The Chiefs have an opening round bye before they host the Highlanders at home on March 5.
Shannon Frizell try, Connor Garden-Bachop try, Mitch Hunt pen.
Codie Taylor try, Bryn Hall try, Sevu Reece try, Brodie McAlister try, Richie Mo'unga 3 con.
Half time: 14-10 Crusaders
• Read full match report, comments in tomorrow's Otago Daily Times