Crusaders overpower Highlanders

Crusaders No 8 Whetukamokamo Douglas charges forward against the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Saturday. DIANNE MANSON/GETTY-IMAGES

The Crusaders machine sits at the top of the Super Rugby Aotearoa ladder with a blockbuster against the Blues in store in Christchurch next Saturday.

In front of another bumper crowd of 19,875 at Forsyth Barr Stadium, the Crusaders prevailed 40-20 against the Highlanders on Saturday to cement their position as the team to beat.

Had wing Jona Nareki not butchered a try in the second half with the score at 21-17, the game could have different.

But the visitors always had the stronger set-piece and with Richie Mo’unga a growing presence in the second half and Sevu Reece providing electricity off the bench, they were deserved winners after fighting back from a 17-14 halftime deficit.

Flanker Tom Christie (twice), Reece and Will Jordan both scored in the second half – Reece’s finish was a beauty – as the weight of possession eventually wore down the Highlanders.

Reece’s try made it 26-20 to the Crusaders after 59 minutes, and they were simply too efficient to lose the game from there, with Christie and the electric Jordan adding late scores to blow out the scoreline.

But the bigger picture emerging from Super Rugby Aotearoa is that this competition is the gift that keeps giving.

Both teams contributed to a superb spectacle under the roof, trading blows before the Crusaders pulled away from a much-improved Highlanders side, who will feel the final score didn’t reflect their competitiveness.

Despite losing influential lock Josh Dickson to what looked like a serious leg injury in the first half, the Highlanders gave as good as they got for long periods and asked serious questions of the Crusaders’ defence.

The Crusaders started well, with Joe Moody and his front-row mates flexing their muscles against new Highlanders No 3 Jeff Thwaites.

There were three scrums within the first five minutes as early nerves affected handling on both sides, and when the fourth came after 12 minutes the Crusaders marched all over the home pack.

That set up a wave of Crusaders pressure and Jordan dotted down in the corner.

More bad news for the Highlanders followed as the stretcher was called for form lock Dickson as Mo’unga lined up the conversion.

Dickson was in obvious discomfort as medics worked on his left leg and the remainder of his season is now clearly in some doubt.

To their credit, the Highlanders immediately hit back after a powerful surge by All Blacks flanker Shannon Frizell, who carried several Crusaders over the line with him.

Aaron Mauger’s side then hit the lead after Aaron Smith, who superb all night, raced onto a loose ball at the back of the lineout sprinted 30 metres upfield.

The Highlanders kept their composure well and recycled possession quickly to feed former Crusader Ngatungane Punivai, who scored in the right-hand corner.

The Crusaders drew level after 33 minutes following two Mo’unga penalties, although the second came after referee Mike Fraser missed an obvious forward pass from Codie Taylor.

The Crusaders were not at their best in the first half, although young wings Jordan and Leicester Fainga’anuku looked sharp, with the latter again showing aerial prowess and strength.

For the Highlanders, Frizell appears to be a player reborn in Super Rugby Aotearoa. The No 6 produced another hugely determined effort that will please All Blacks coach Ian Foster.

Lock Pari Pari Parkinson again gave glimpses of his huge power and skill, and made some tough metres up the middle.

The cut and thrust of an excellent first half continued for the full 40 minutes, and the Highlanders had the last say just before the break, with Mitch Hunt knocking over a penalty to give the home side a 17-14 lead.

However, the Crusaders were far from done.

Jordan was outstanding in the second half, and with No 9 Mitchell Drummond all class at No 9, they finished strongly to let the Blues know that only a complete effort will do next week.

Crusaders 40 (Will Jordan (2), Tom Christie (2), Sevu Reece tries, Richie Mo’unga, 3 cons, 3 pens) bt Highlanders 20 (Shannon Frizell, Ngatungane Punivai tries, Mitch Hunt 2 cons, 2 pens). HT: 14-17.

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