Replacement Mitchell Hunt struck an 83rd-minute drop goal from the halfway line to hand the Crusaders a stunning 25-22 win over the Highlanders in Christchurch on Saturday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
What more can one say about the Crusaders? Despite having trailed for most of the second half in this thrilling contest, Hunt first stepped up to slot a 77th-minute penalty that looked to have salvaged at least a draw for the hosts.
However, the drama was far from done. Hunt missed a penalty in the final minute of regular time as the Saders seemed to have squandered a match-winning opportunity, but he then produced an absolute miracle drop goal well after the final hooter had sounded to send the Crusaders and their fans into delirious celebrations.
In the end, it’s a 14th successive win for the Crusaders, with the former seven-time champs now looking sure to secure the New Zealand conference title.
It’s also a result that certainly doesn’t favour the Lions, who trail the Crusaders by seven points in the overall standings, although the Johannesburg-based side will have a game in hand when they return to action after the June international break.
Initially, it seemed to be a case of business as usual for the Crusaders early on, with scrumhalf Mitchell Drummond darting over to score in the second minute, while winger Seta Tamanivalu was put away in the corner soon after.
However, the Crusaders then provided the Highlanders with the slight opening they would have been looking for as flanker Heiden Bedwell-Curtis was sent to the sin bin just before the half-hour mark.
In his absence, the Landers came roaring back into the contest as winger Richard Buckman went over to score, while flyhalf Marty Banks slotted a subsequent penalty to cut the deficit to just two points.
Yet, in typical fashion, the Crusaders manufactured a beautiful try at a crucial time, with Bedwell-Curtis finishing off a well-worked worked move just after returning from the sin bin.
It was a score that enabled the hosts to open up with a handy 19-10 lead at the break, despite the fact that they had enjoyed just a measly 28% of territory in the opening stanza, with the Crusaders’ outstanding defence once again coming to the fore.
Having said that, momentum swung firmly in favour of the visitors after the restart as the Crusaders conceded a turnover in their own 22, with Waisake Naholo pouncing to score, while just minutes later the big winger then latched on to a loose pass to dash 80m to score.
That double strike suddenly sent the Highlanders into a three-point lead heading into the final quarter, but then the Crusaders launched a dramatic comeback that maintained their historic unbeaten record.
Crusaders – Tries: Mitchell Drummond, Seta Tamanivalu, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis. Conversions: Richie Mo'unga (2). Penalty: Mitchel Hunt. Drop goal: Hunt.
Highlanders – Tries: Richard Buckman, Waisake Naholo (2). Conversions: Marty Banks (2). Penalty: Banks.
Crusaders – 15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Jed Brown, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Mitchel Hunt, 23 Israel Dagg.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Richard Buckman, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon (cc), 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Matt Faddes.
Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images