The Highlanders overturned an 11-point deficit to beat the Crusaders 25-20 in Christchurch on Saturday. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
The Crusaders came into this match as favourites having comfortably won their last three home fixtures against the Highlanders and put 52 points past the Sharks in Durban last weekend. But that long trip back to New Zealand seemed to affect them as they let a 14-3 advantage slip, conceding a try late in the first half and another two early in the second.
Kieran Read's side were guilty of not playing directly enough with their forwards and going wide before having earned the right to do so, even after their best finisher, Nemani Nadolo, left the field after 54 minutes.
The Highlanders were full value for the win, taking the scoring opportunities that came their way and defending well, with the Crusaders unable to add to their tally when Lima Sopoaga was in the bin.
It was Sopoaga who opened the scoring with a penalty, before the Crusaders got the first try when Colin Slade broke the line and found Nadolo, whose one-handed pass in the tackle put Matt Todd over in the left-hand corner.
Israel Dagg slotted the touchline conversion instead of Slade, who had been flattened by Sopoaga after making the break. Referee Glen Jackson watched the incident again on the big screen as the Highlanders were preparing to take the restart and pulled out his yellow card.
While the Crusaders couldn't score while Sopoaga was off the field, they did get their second try shortly after he returned. Instead of taking a gimmie three points, the hosts opted for a scrum, from which Nadolo broke through a couple of tackles. Jordan Taufua then darted over from the subsequent ruck and Slade's conversion made it 14-3 at the end of the first quarter.
But the Highlanders would reduce the deficit to one, with Sopoaga kicking his second penalty and then making a try from nothing two minutes before the break when he scythed through a gap, drew Dagg, and put Ben Smith away with a well-timed pass.
The visitors then took the lead early in the second half when Kieron Fonotia's pass was intercepted by Waisake Naholo, who ran 60m to score.
The Highlanders thought they had got another when Malakai Fekitoa reached out to place the ball on the line, but the TMO ruled he had made a double movement. However, the referee had been playing advantage, and a kick to the corner was followed by a lineout driving maul. Aaron Smith then went wide from the ruck to Naholo, whose second try made it 25-14 and prompted the introduction of Richie McCaw off the Crusaders bench in the 53rd minute.
Slade brought the visitors' purple patch to an end with a penalty and another three points with three minutes to go reduced the gap to five.
But the Highlanders controlled possession well in the final seconds of the match and booted the ball into the stands when the hooter sounded.
Crusaders – Tries: Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua. Conversions: Israel Dagg, Colin Slade. Penalties: Colin Slade (2).
Highlanders – Tries: Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo (2). Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalties: Sopoaga (2).
Crusaders – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 David Havili, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Jimmy Tupou, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Nepo Lualala, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Richie McCaw, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Dan Carter, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Pingi Tala’apitaga, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.
Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images