The Crusaders kept their perfect Super Rugby Aotearoa record intact with a hard-fought 40-20 win over the Highlanders at the Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Despite the comfortable scoreline in favour of Crusaders, the match could have been won by either side.
But, the lack of concentration and accuracy in the last minutes of the match proved to be really costly for the Highlanders.
The match had everything the crowd in Dunedin expected. It was utter physical and fast-paced but in the end, Crusaders outscored their opponents by five tries to two for a bonus-point win.
For the second week in a row, Crusaders fullback Will Jordan bagged a brace of tries. While Tom Christie – also with a double – and Sevu Reece were the other names on the scoresheet.
For the Highlanders, Shannon Frizell and Ngane Punivai were the try-scorers.
This was the Highlanders second defeat in a row in the new tournament after their loss to the Blues in Round three.
Highlanders captain Aaron Smith said the Crusaders became too clinical as the game wore on.
“Their ability to hold the ball, build pressure and score points got us in the end,” he said.
After eight minutes of very intense play, a Richie Mo’unga penalty put the Crusaders ahead, 3-0 to the visitors.
The Super Rugby champions continued to pile on the pressure and looked dangerous every time they were on the attack.
Adding to Highlanders woes were their overzealous defence, conceding a couple of penalties which handed Crusaders the perfect platform pounce.
And Scott Robertson’s men certainly did. Some amazing interplay between David Havili and Braydon Ennor inside the Highlanders’ 22 made sure Jordan went over in the corner. However, there were questions about the grounding but Jordan did well to keep his foot inside the touchline for the first try of the match.
Mo’unga’s conversion attempt was wide and the score remained 8-0.
After 15 minutes of play Highlanders pack were hampered when Josh Dickson left the field on a stretcher and was replaced by Jack Whetton.
However, the early development ignited the team and after a very slow start the home team hit back. Loose forward Shanon Frizzell, surrounded by a couple of Crusaders bodies, powered his way over the line for the Highlanders first try.
Again the referee Mike Fraser made use of the TMO, but the stood. Mitch Hunt added the conversion.
Minutes later, the Highlanders took the lead. A superb line break from All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith had the Crusaders’ defence scrambling and with a few support runners on his right, the hosts worked it wide to Ngane Punivai who dived over for the five-pointer. Hunt extended the lead with a perfect kick, 14-8.
As expected the Crusaders regrouped and levelled matters with two successful penalties by Mo’unga.
Just before the break, Highlanders won a penalty and Hunt stepped up to make sure his team head to the lockers for a 17-14 lead.
The Crusaders up the tempo in the second stanza and scored the first points. Great work Jordan and David Havili got flank Christie over the line for the try. Mo’unga added the conversion for the 21-17 lead.
Short of the hour mark, Highlanders won a penalty allowing Hunt to narrow the deficit to just one point.
However, then things literally went south for the hosts.
A powerful pass by Mitchell Drummond found Sevu Reece, who managed to launch himself into the air to find the chalk right in the corner. Mo’unga again missed the conversion attempt, 26-20.
With five minutes left of the clock, Crusaders had an opportunity to extend their lead however Mo’unga missed the penalty attempt – certainly summed up his form from the tee.
Nonetheless, the visitors relentless pressure resulted in another five-pointer for Christie. Mo’unga managed to add the extras, for the 33-20 lead.
And it the champions were far from finished, with a counter-attack out of their own 22, Jordan followed his chip kick with an impressive run for the final try of the Southern Derby.
Mo’unga added the conversion for the full points and the victory.
Man of the match: For the Highlanders, captain Aaron Smith and Shannon Frizell were in fine form. Smith’s leadership was vital and his absence was truly felt in the closing minutes of the match. David Havili, Tom Christie and Jack Goodhue were some of the standout performers for the Crusaders. However our nod goes to Crusaders fullback Will Jordan, who not only scored two tries but his support play, carries and lethal breaks were just incredible.
Tries: Frizell, Punivai
Cons: Hunt 2
Pens: Hunt 2
Tries: Jordan 2, Christie 2, Reece
Cons: Mo’unga 3
Pens: Mo’unga 3
Highlanders: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Ngane Punivai, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Sio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Marino Mikaele Tu’u, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Josh Dickson, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Jeff Thwaites, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Ayden Johnstone, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Jack Whetton, 20 Teariki Ben-Nicholas, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Vilimoni Koroi.
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Will Jordan, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 Jack Goodhue, 11 Leicester Faingaanuku, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Whetukamokamo Douglas, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Sione Havili, 5 Mitchell Dunshea, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor (captain), 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 George Bower, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Tom Sanders, 21 Ere Enari, 22 Fetuli Paea, 23 Sevu Reece.
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill, Paul Williams
TMO: Chris Hart