The Highlanders beat the Crusaders 6-0 in the lowest-scoring match in Super Rugby history.
The 0-0 half-time scoreline said more than purple prose ever could. It was an insipid display guaranteed to cure insomniacs and offer up ammo to the Super 14′s detractors. A turnover after several phases was the only pattern in the opening 40 minutes. Handling errors and bad decision-making that have characterised the first four rounds were again prominent. There was a time when the Super 14 brand was called champagne rugby. The offering at Carisbrook was more like stale beer.
The Highlanders did well to disrupt the Crusaders in the set-phases, but were equally guilty of bad ball retention. Both teams created solid platforms from which to attack but were eventually thwarted by bad handling. Not because of defensive pressure, but because of bad handling. Not to be outdone by the players, referee Ian Smith contributed to this shambles with a shambolic performance of his own.
The Saders went into this game without Casey Laulala, and the All Blacks centre was certainly missed for his experience in midfield. The champs suffered a big blow after 30 minutes when Richie McCaw injured his knee and was helped from the field. The Crusaders lacked a leader in a game devoid of shape of structure. They looked the better team, but their dominance was never reflected on the scoreboard.
The trend continued after the break, with opportunity after umpteenth opportunity butchered through a forward pass or dropped ball. The Highlanders continued to compete fiercely at the breakdown, and despite a wealth of possession and territory in the third quarter, the Crusaders failed to produce.
Colin Slade received the first goalable chance of the match in the 63rd minute. The kick was bang in front, but the young Crusaders pivot only succeeded in pushing it wide. His mistake was punished by Daniel Bowden three minutes later, who goaled a difficult attempt to give the hosts the lead.
George Whitelock infringed one time too many and was sin-binned by Smith in the 73rd minute. Bowden obliged with a second penalty goal and the Highlanders managed to stave off a final Saders attack.
Mercy arrived in the 80th minute as Smith blew the final whistle. The match was a shocker, and both teams cannot hope to compete for a semi-final spot if they continue to under-perform to such a degree.
By Jon Cardinelli