Crusaders sneak past Highlanders in thriller
The Crusaders have got their groove back with a 32-30 bonus point win over the Highlanders in an enthralling southern derby tonight.
Some white hot action on the pitch was a marked contrast with the freezing southerly front which had passed over Dunedin just before kick off.
It took a desperate tackle on winger Patrick Osborne in the final act of the game to deny the Highlanders with both teams scoring four tries.
The Crusaders started full of intent to make up for last week's loss to the Sharks, monstering the Highlanders scrum and applying relentless pressure on the goal line.
Johnny McNicholl dropped the ball with the corner open and then dished up a forward pass for Nemani Nadolo, but eventually the pressure told and Jordan Taufua took the direct route to the tryline.
Finally, after quarter of an hour the Highlanders were able to run out of their own half, just as the crowd was in danger of getting a crick in their necks.
Aaron Smith hacked a loose ball upfield and then won the race to secure possession, the resulting penalty seeing the Highlanders go the corner.
Cynical play by the Crusaders was met with a yellow card for Richie McCaw by referee Glen Jackson as the tide began to turn the Highlanders' way.
With McCaw in the bin, the Highlanders scored from a deceptive little pass by Aaron Smith to Ged Robinson after 24 minutes.
Osborne grabbed the Highlanders' second try four minutes later with some quality finishing down the right hand touchline after lovely lead up work by Aaron and Ben Smith, and a top offload by Malakai Fekitoa, who was having a whale of a game.
By the time McCaw returned the Highlanders had scored 12 unanswered points and they would take a 12-10 lead into halftime after 40 minutes of tough, sometimes testy, football.
The Crusaders struck back immediately after the break, Tim Perry crashing over to put the visitors into the lead before Lima Sopoaga evened the scores going into the final half hour with a penalty.
Perry's front row partner Nepo Laulala scored the Crusaders' third try and the two starting props were rewarded with a trip to the bench as Wyatt Crockett, Owen Franks and Corey Flynn were injected into the game.
Both tries came on the back of barging runs by Nadolo and he looked to seal it with the Crusaders' fourth try after a super draw by Israel Dagg saw him smash over in the corner.
Fekitoa scored in the corner with less than 15 minutes to go, but replacement kicker Hayden Parker's conversion left the Highlanders needing a converted try to steal the win.
Ben Smith's bonus point try and Parker's sideline conversion set the game up for a grandstand finish with the Crusaders hanging onto a 32-30 lead in the final five minutes.
Some amazing Crusaders defence eventually saw TMO Vinny Munro have to make the tightest of calls with Osborne judged to have just missed out by a blade of grass in the corner.
Crusaders 32 (Jordan Taufua, Tim Perry, Nepo Laulala, Nemani Nadolo tries; Colin Slade 3 con, 2 pen) Highlanders 30 (Ged Robinson, Patrick Osborne, Malakai Fekitoa, Ben Smith tries; Lima Sopoaga con, pen, Hayden Parker pen, con)