Crusaders hold off Highlanders

The Crusaders rebounded from their opening day defeat with a hard-fought 26-20 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday, writes BRENTON CHELIN.

Following their disappointing performance against the Rebels, a response was expected. Coach Todd Blackadder rang the changes, and he would've been pleased with the reaction he got from his players.

Colin Slade slotted in seamlessly at flyhalf and controlled the game well from the pivot position, while outside him Ryan Crotty and Israel Dagg made valuable contributions, before the latter was forced off the field just prior to half-time through injury. However, it was the performance of 21-year-old lock Scott Barrett, the younger brother of Beauden, that earmarked him as one to watch.

The Highlanders, like the Crusaders had done last weekend, exhibited signs of rust, and their decision-making let them down at key times of the match. Both sides looked to keep the ball in hand, making for an entertaining contest.

The Crusaders were ruthlessly efficient in the first half, and led 20-7 at the break following tries from Johnny McNicholl and the influential Barrett. The Highlanders' sole response came from All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith.

The hosts made a match of things in the second half and, after Malakai Fekitoa punched his way through following a period of sustained pressure, it looked like the comeback was on.

A Lima Sopoaga penalty eight minutes from time brought the Highlanders within striking distance, but Slade made the result safe with his fourth penalty of the night.

There was still time for Sopoaga to add a late penalty as the Highlanders secured a bonus point for finishing within seven points.

Highlanders – Tries: Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalties: Sopoaga (2).
Crusaders – Tries: Scott Barrett, Johnny McNicholl. Conversions: Colin Slade (2). Penalties: Slade (4).

Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Jason Emery, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Josh Hohneck.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Kane Hames, 18 Ma’afu Fia, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Marty Banks.

Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Robbie Fruean, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Johnny McNicholl, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Richie McCaw, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Subs: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Dominic Bird, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.

Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images