Flyhalf Mitch Hunt kicked 18 points as the depleted Highlanders streaked to a record 33-12 win against the Crusaders in Christchurch on Friday.
By the numbers: In what feels like the Crusaders’ first loss since Bill Gates started wearing spectacles, the Highlanders clinched their biggest win against the Kiwi juggernauts, their first win in Christchurch since 2015 and snapped a seven-game slump against the Crusaders.
The Highlanders came into the match without six players suspended for a boozy Friday night house party at Josh Ioane’s pad, but it was the Crusaders who seemed to have a hangover from their bye week.
Uncharacteristic sloppy handling and a lack of composure saw the defending champs surrender a dozen penalties and 12 turnovers in the first half alone. By the final whistle, the All Blacks trio of flyhalf Richie Mounga, fullback Will Jordan and winger George Bridge had combined for 12 turnovers conceded.
Gameflow: Hunt kicked three penalties, and then set up and converted flanker Billy Harmon’s try to put the visitors into a 16-0 lead after 34 minutes. The Crusaders finally pulled it together in the 43rd minute of the first half … hooker Codie Taylor crashed over after the Highlanders halted an attacking lineout drive and Mounga added the extras to make it 16-7 at the break.
Hunt added another three points 10 minutes after the restart before centre Michael Collins hacked ahead another loose pass from the Crusaders and then, after a duffed clearance from Jordan, ran a short line for the try. Hunt converted to make it 26-7 at the start of the final quarter.
When replacement loosehead George Bower conceded a penalty at a five-metre scrum, it didn’t look like the Crusaders were going to score again in the match. That changed when, of all people, Aaron Smith, the most capped Highlander in team history, had a box-kick charged down and David Havili rounded a defender to dot down with 10 minutes to go.
Mounga pulled the conversion and then further halted the Crusaders’ momentum from the ensuing kickoff when he floated an errant pass that put the Highlanders back on attack. While the home team scrambled well to extinguish the fire, the contest remained in the shadow of their uprights as the Crusaders insisted on running from their 22.
The inevitable happened with five minutes to go when Jordan popped a pull-pass into thin air, his opposite number, Connor Garden-Bachop scooped up the loose ball to score (33-12) and Hunt converted for the win.
On the Hunt: For the Highlanders, some of the credit must go to a spirited defence that featured the diminutive duo of scrumhalf Folau Fakatava and winger Jona Nareki moonlighting as ruck-raiders, and it didn’t hurt that Hunt was playing some of his best footy, hitting grass with scripted kicks, slaloming between defenders before releasing his speedsters and making the ball shadow the crossbar with three conversions and four penalties.
Hunt finished with 10 carries for 82 metres, three clean breaks and six defenders beaten, and he teamed up with Fakatava in a Highlanders kicking game that launched 35 kicks to pin the Crusaders to the far end of the field.