Crusaders off to winning start

The Crusaders began their Aotearoa title defence with a comfortable 26-13 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.

It can’t be forgotten that after months without any rugby last year – as the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc around the globe – it was Super Rugby Aotearoa that made the first meaningful return to action.

The competition in 2020 was an entertaining and compelling spectacle that brought much-needed relief to sport-deprived fans, with the Crusaders ultimately emerging as deserved champions.

That’s just some of the context that preceded the 2021 Aotearoa competition as the Saders fronted up against the Highlanders, who made a statement of intent even before kick-off as they launched into a unique and passionate haka rendition.

As it turned out, the first half in Dunedin was an energetic and entertaining affair despite this being a season opener.

The Crusaders would initially take control through two quality tries to Codie Taylor and Bryn Hall, but the Highlanders responded in kind as Shannon Frizell and Connor Garden-Bachop went over.

After the high-octane action in the first half, both teams battled to replicate the same sort of consistency after the restart, but the Crusaders re-established some ascendancy after Sevu Reece completed a classy finish in the corner.

Yet, the Crusaders’ six-point advantage came under severe threat as the hosts launched into a period of extended attack in the third quarter. But despite a period of more than five minutes camped in the opposition 22, the Highlanders were unable to add any points.

That was the decisive point in the second stanza, and not long after the result was sealed when Crusaders replacement Brodie McAlister powered over from the back of a powerful maul.

Highlanders – 15 Solomon Alaimalo, 14 Connor Garden-Bachop, 13 Ngantungane Punivai, 12 Sio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith (cc), 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Jack Regan, 4 Josh Dickson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon (cc), 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Josh Hohneck, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Bryn Evans, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Hugh Renton.

Crusaders – 15 Chay Fihaki, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Dallas McLeod, 11 Leicester Fainga’anuku, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Cullen Grace, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Ethan Blackadder, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Scott Barrett (c), 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Brodie McAlister, 17 George Bower, 18 Fletcher Newell, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Sione Havili Talitui, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Fergus Burke, 23 Josh McKay.

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Craig Lewis