The Crusaders beat the Highlanders on Saturday in a pulsating contest in round 15 of the 2014 Super Rugby tournament in Dunedin. The South Island derby promised to all action and it was, being settled right at the death as the home side were controversially denied the winning try by a TMO decision. The result was that the Crusaders held on for a 32-30 win in another Super Rugby epic.
Coming into the match, both teams had vastly contrasting previous matches. While both strongly in contention for the play off matches in August, the Crusaders slipped to a tight defeat at the hand of the Sharks at home last week, while the Highlanders snuck a vital away win in Wellington against the Hurricanes.
It was the Crusaders who made the brightest start and were not afraid to move the ball wide early on. The Highlanders meanwhile looked lethargic in defence; slipping off tackles with startling frequency and straying offside already meant the Crusaders could set up camp deep in the 22.
Despite dominating the opening quarter of an hour, it seemed that the Crusaders were trying everything in their arsenal not to score; first Johnny McNicholl put down a simple pass within yards of the try-line. Then Nemani Nodolo was denied by the TMO after a forward pass. However, this pressure would pay off. Another series of short runs and relentless bulldozing through tackles saw Jordan Taufua crash over from short distance; Crusaders finally taking the lead with a deserved score. First five-eighth Colin Slade added the two points.
It was an absorbing and vastly changing match such that it saw the Highlanders almost wake up after fifteen minutes. The impetus was now firmly with the home side as they created opportunities of their own, with the instrumental Aaron Smith providing them. Increasing pressure at the Crusaders’ scrum saw Smith get a knee on an Andy Ellis pass. Smith then hacked the ball on down field, brilliantly re-capturing it as he hit the ground. A few thundering phases further on and the Crusaders deliberately giving away a penalty; Richie McCaw of all people received a yellow card; sin binned for ten minutes.
Time and time again, the Highlanders tried to bash their way through what was proving to be a resolute Crusaders defence. The deadlock was then smashed for the home side as Ged Robinson pick a sumptuous line two yards from the line to get the Highlanders on the board.
And the Highlanders took the lead some three minutes later too. The Crusaders, having been on top in the opening fifteen, were under the cosh in the last ten. Each time they attempted to construct a play, they would get penalised, and while down one man, ball was at a premium for the visitors. From a penalty line-out the Highlanders spread the ball out, and Malakai Fekitoa (a revelation this season) sweetly broke the line and gave a deft pass round the back of McNicholl to Ben Smith. Smith then easily drew in Israel Dagg to put Patrick Osbourne in the corner. Lima Sopoaga added the extras from the touchline; Highlanders now led 12-7. Colin Slade kicked a penalty late in the first half to close the gap to just the three points at the break.
The visitors began the second period in much the same fashion as the first. Slick passing and some barracking running – instigated by Dagg – put the Highlanders on the back foot almost immediately. Nadolo, continuing his first half form got tantalisingly close to the line – Highlanders winger Richard Buckman bravely stopping his opposite number. Quick ball from halfback Andy Ellis was fed to prop Tim Perry who barged over to score. Slade miraculously missed the simple conversion; the score 15-12 Crusaders.
Despite equalising through a Sopoaga penalty, the Crusaders were back in the Highlanders 22 within no time at all. Winning the restart, the ball was thrown out to Ryan Crotty who stormed through the defence only to stumble. More quick ball and a beautiful inside from Dagg to Nadolo who again found himself hauled up short. Another phase, another try as Nepo Laulala crossed for another try. This time Slade made no mistake and the somewhat dumbstruck trailed 22-15.
The Crusaders’ intensity did not falter one bit as they continued to batter the Highlanders defensive line. Fantastic interplay from backs and forwards alike meant that play outside the hosts’ half was a rare occurrence. When it was, the Highlanders took their chance to close the gap. Ellis was penalised for offside at the ruck and replacement out-half Hayden Parker (on for Sopoaga) nailed the three points.
And just as the Highlanders got back into the match, the Crusaders struck once more; this time capturing the bonus point try through Nadolo. It followed some typical Crusaders play twinned with a long, slick pass from Slade and a magic goosestep from Dagg to put the big winger in the corner. Slade again added the conversion to lead 29-18; Crusaders now looking comfortable in front.
The Highlanders have shown all year long that they do not back down and this match was no different. With fifteen to go the home side finally found themselves in the opposite 22 with the ball – thanks to Malakai Fekitoa – and they made great use of it. After the forwards carried deep, Aaron Smith threw a sublime, flat ball out to Fekitoa – with the help of a well timed decoy from Osbourne – to stroll in at the corner. The try was confirmed via a somewhat unnecessary TMO and despite Parker hitting the woodwork with the conversion the score remained poised at 29-23.
Slade hit back with another penalty to edge out to 32-23 but once more the Highlanders fought back. Again deep in the Crusaders’ 22, Aaron Smith was creating massive amounts of space with his quite brilliant passing. Replacement Phil Burleigh almost snuck through the defence before another Smith pass put try scoring machine and namesake Ben Smith in at the corner. The gap now reduced to a mere two points as Parker sent over a sensational conversion under immense pressure.
Now the ascendency was firmly with the Highlanders and Fekitoa was proving to be more than a handful for the Crusaders. Territorial kicking from Parker put them under even more pressure and the hosts had the possession for the remaining two minutes. As the crowd noise got louder, the intensity tried its best to match it. With time now up it was all or nothing: several stabs at the line were made but to no avail, the Crusaders’ defence remaining resolute till the end. Quick ball regeneration produced numbers on the near side and after taking a swooping Parker pass, Patrick Osbourne crossed the line in what the crowd believed to be the winning try. The TMO was called and controversially ruled that Israel Dagg managed to push the Otago winger into touch; therefore ruling out a home victory.
At the end of an absolutely absorbing encounter (30-32), it was the Christchurch based team that came out on top. The Highlanders felt and will feel aggrieved that a win slipped out of their grasp. For the neutrals, it proved to be the match of the Super Rugby campaign so far.
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