Southland flanker John Hardie made a pleasing return to rugby last night as the Highlanders beat the Crusaders 38-21 in a preseason game in Oamaru.
The Highlanders scored six tries to three win in front of 5000 Oamaruvians at Whitestone Contracting Stadium, with Hardie making his first appearance since re-injuring his foot during the Stags preseason last year.
''It's a good feeling, I was a bit nervous today, it felt like I was back playing for the Southland under-14 team when I used to get really nervous. Being out of the game for so long I needed to find out if I could still play rugby or not.''
Hardie played 50 minutes yesterday, but admitted he was feeling the pace of the game after about half of that.
He's confident the rehab on his troublesome foot will hold up this time around.
''I think this time it feels really strong. It feels a lot better and I'm not thinking about it during the game like I did last time.''
Ma'a Nonu looked to have taken the game personally in his first appearance in a Highlanders jersey, spending the opening minutes threatening the offside line and loading up a powerful and dangerous looking shoulder.
Israel Dagg, playing at centre for the Crusaders, offered little resistance against his All Black team mate when Nonu ran hard at the line from 10m out for the opening try of the game.
A beautiful step and inside ball from Lima Sopoaga set up Buxton Popoali'i for the Highlanders' second and Popoali'i turned provider when he followed up a wobbly Phil Burleigh kick which refused to bounce out, throwing the finishing ball to match day skipper Hosea Gear.
In between All Black Luke Romano had crossed twice on either wing for a 19-14 halftime scoreline.
Nonu, who has been criticised as a slow starter in Super Rugby, if in fact he starts at all, continued where he left off in the second half, bullying the midfield on attack and defence and he received some rousing applause when he was finally substituted along with Aaron Smith with 15min to go.
A set piece try to Sopoaga, who responded to a challenge by the coaches to tidy up his game, and a bit of fortune for his replacement Hayden Parker pushed the score out to 31-14.
Parker grabbed a second try before the game finished on a score by Crusaders replacement Kieran Fonotia.
The Highlanders take on the Blues in Queenstown on Friday in their final preseason game, ahead of their competition opener against the Chiefs in Dunedin on February 22.
Highlanders 38 (Ma'a Nonu, Buxton Popoali'i, Hosea Gear, Lima Sopoaga, Hayden Parker 2 tries; Sopoaga 2 con, Parker 2 con) Crusaders 21 (Luke Romano 2, Kieran Fonotia tries; Tom Taylor 2 con, Tyler Bleyendaal con) HT: 19-14
THE GOODTake your pick from Ma'a Nonu's big day out in Oamaru, or the snappy little combination which appears to be developing between Aaron Smith and Sopoaga. They look lethal with quick ball.
THE BADThe Highlanders scrum wasn't perfect, although it did help dish up a couple of set piece tries, and neither was the lineout. Crusaders skipper Ryan Crotty made some inroads early in the game.
THE RUGBYFast, as you'd expect at this time of the year, but also pretty physical for a preseason game. Both teams battled with their scrum engage but there was plenty to send a 5000-strong Oamaru crowd away happy.
- The Southland Times
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