By Roger Childs
When you play the Crusaders in Christchurch you lose – well usually. Since July 2016 they had only been beaten once – by the Hurricanes in July 2020 – until last night. The Highlanders came to town on the back of a loss at home to the Wellington-based franchise and stunned the locals giving them a 33 -12 hiding.
The visitors first – five eights Mitch Hunt, had a forgettable game last week, however against the Crusaders he was brilliant. As well as kicking 18 points he was dangerous with ball in hand, fed his outsides well and tackled strongly.
A strong start
Hunt kicked an early penalty and after a series of attacks inside the Crusaders 22, Billy Harmon crashed over near the posts to give the visitors a10-0 lead after quarter of an hour. The crowd of more than 13,000 were expecting a home team come back and right on half time Codie Taylor scored with Richie Mo’unga converting to go into the sheds just 7-16 down.
But the Crusaders never got into gear in the second half and their usualforward dominance and fluency in the backs was missing. Inevitably in the last quarter playing catch-up rugby many mistakes were made.
David Havilli scored wide out late in the game for the home team, but second half tries to Michael Collins and Connor Garden-Bachop plus two conversions and a penalty to Hunt gave the Highlanders an emphatic upset victory.
Players missing but the team was highly motivated
Coach Tony Brown dropped six players for breaking team protocols, apparently a party at Josh Ioane’s home. So some of the reserves stepped up in their place and put on a vintage performance. The revamped Highlanders played as if they expected to win on the hallowed turf at AMI Stadium in Christchurch. Did the Crusaders under-estimate the opposition? Maybe.
The Highlanders took the game to their much vaunted opposition well led by hooker Ash Dixon and won the battle in the loose with plenty of turnovers. In the scrums the heavier home team pack occasionally pushed the visitors back, however the Highlanders props were more than a match for their opponents.
The backs ran with confidence, set alight with the quick passing of Folau Fakatava and Garden-Bashop and Nareki were dangerous out on the flanks. The Highlanders defence was solid and it was rare for the experienced Crusader backs to break through. This time there was no Mo’unga magic to seize the initiative for the home team.
The Highlanders has the luxury of having Aaron Smith on the bench and in the crucial final 15 minutes the All Black half back provided the leadership needed to marshal the defence and cement the victory.
Good for the competition
The Crusaders still have a commanding lead in the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition with four wins out of five, however the Highlanders unexpected victory in Christchurch does close the gap between the teams. What that result shows, along with Chiefs unlikely win over the Blues last week, is that every side is capable of beating any of the others.
For the fans the quality of the rugby continues to be high and enjoyment is guaranteed with every game equivalent to test match rugby.