Waisake Naholo and Matt Faddes each scored a brace of tries as the Highlanders secured a 34-26 bonus-point win over the Crusaders in Dunedin on Friday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
In what was yet another absorbing and highly entertaining New Zealand derby, the Highlanders sent out a resounding reminder that they have all the championship credentials to mount a successful title defence.
Again, the Highlanders’ defence laid the foundation for victory, but they were also lethal on attack, and importantly held their own at scrum time against a formidable Crusaders pack. In the end, they scored five tries to two and came away with a most deserved result that ended the Saders’ eight-match winning streak.
If ever there was an illustration of the effectiveness of the Highlanders’ defensive and kicking ‘slow poison’ game plan it came in the first half. As illustrated by SARugbymag.co.za’s Opta-powered stats, in the opening stanza the Crusaders made 250m to 145, completed 60 tackles to 38 and enjoyed 66% of possession, with the Highlanders being forced to make 64 tackles to 21.
And yet it would be the Landers who led 20-12 at the break. Again, the defending champs relied on their never-say-die defence and ability to apply pressure without the ball to frustrate the opposition and force errors, while executing with precision on attack.
The Highlanders particularly had to absorb plenty of pressure in the opening quarter when the Crusaders enjoyed 72% of possession and had two tries ruled out after referrals to the TMO. Nevertheless, it would be the hosts who scored the opening try when a beautiful cross kick from Lima Sopoaga found Naholo in space on the right wing in the 22nd minute.
And even when flyhalf Richie Mo'unga slotted his fourth penalty to edge the Saders into a 12-8 lead soon after, the Highlanders found a way to promptly hit right back.
First, centre Matt Faddes broke through a tackle to go over for a try that put the home team into the lead for the first time just on the half-hour mark. And then, with momentum suddenly well and truly on the Highlanders’ side, they again exposed some poor first-time tackling from the Crusaders as Naholo was able to go over unopposed just before the break.
Having quite simply made the most of their limited opportunities on attack, while relying on determined defence, the Highlanders most deservedly banked a handy eight-point lead heading into the break. They extended that advantage to a commanding 15 points when Faddes produced a beautiful show-and-go to canter over for his second try and open up a handy buffer with less than half an hour left to play.
At that stage it looked like game, set and match, but the Crusaders received an opening when Highlanders lock Joe Wheeler was yellow-carded for a late shoulder charge. With a one-man advantage, the Saders were finally able to convert an opportunity on attack into a try as flank Jordan Taufua cut inside to score.
That glimpse of hope for the Crusaders was soon snuffed out, though, as Highlanders replacement Liam Squire went over for the team’s fifth try to effectively seal the result with 10 minutes left to play, although Saders fullback Israel Dagg would score a consolation try with the final play of the game.
Highlanders – Tries: Waisake Naholo (2), Matt Faddes (2), Liam Squire. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (3). Penalty: Sopoaga.
Crusaders – Tries: Jordan Taufua, Israel Dagg. Conversions: Richie Mo'unga (2). Penalties: Mo'unga (4).
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Teihorangi Walden.
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 David Havili, 11 Jone Macilai, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Tim Boys, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Ryan Crotty, 23 Marty McKenzie.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images