Ma'a Nonu stars for Highlanders on debut
Ma'a Nonu's value for the Highlanders was immediately on show this evening when his new team beat the Crusaders 38-21 in their pre-season match at Whitestone Contracting Stadium in Oamaru.
The big All Blacks second five-eighth, who will this season represent his third franchise after previously playing for the Blues and Hurricanes, scored a try, unleashed several trademark heavy tackles and created a few line breaks in his first appearance for the southerners.
Nonu played 65 minutes and was anything but a passenger despite his lengthy break over the summer as he formed a capable midfield partnership with Phil Burleigh.
While Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder elected to rest a number of his internationals, including skipper Kieran Read, Dan Carter, Sam Whitelock and Owen Franks, Highlanders boss Jamie Joseph had most of his stars on show.
Former All Blacks lock Brad Thorn completed 60 minutes, while loosehead prop Tony Woodcock was subbed after 50.
Unlike Joseph, who elected to retain the majority of his starting XV after halftime, Blackadder rotated his team and gave a chunk of his wider training group and academy players a run.
Nonu scored the opening try when he slammed through the Crusaders defensive line, leaving Israel Dagg - playing in the unfamiliar position of centre - grasping little more than oxygen and grass.
Next on the scoreboard was Nonu's nippy team-mate, fullback Buxton Popoali'i.
Having trailed first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga as he drifted wide, Popoali'i took the inside pass and cantered to the in-goal to put his team up 12-0 with the conversion to come.
Lock Luke Romano replied with two tries for the Crusaders, scoring each out wide on both sides of the paddock.
A fine burst up-field by rookie left wing Johnny McNicholl down the left flank led to the ball being quickly spat out the ensuing ruck, a number of quick transfers followed and Romano glided over in the opposite corner.
It was as if a negative had been flipped when Romano scored his second; the Crusaders slowly built momentum, kept the ball in hand and the All Blacks second rower was untouched as he cruised in.
Hosea Gear added the Highlanders third try in the 30th minute, completing a long-range effort that was started by a clever kick from midfielder Phil Burleigh.
Popoali'i was rewarded for his diligent chase and despite the attention of Crusaders fullback Tom Marshall he was able to release Gear who motored home to give his side a 19-14 lead at halftime.
Highlanders 38 (Hayden Parker 2, Ma'a Nonu, Buxton Popoali'i, Hosea Gear, Lima Sopoaga tries, Sopoaga 2, Parker 2 cons) Crusaders 21 (Luke Romano 2, Kieran Fonotia tries; Tom Taylor 2, Tyler Bleyendaal cons) HT: 19-14.