GARETH DUNCAN watched the Crusaders convert a slim 13-6 half-time lead into a 44-13 bonus-point victory against the Highlanders in Dunedin.
The hefty score line camouflaged the Highlanders’ brave performance produced early on in front of a near full house at Carisbrooke. Considering how lethal and clinical the latter were in their wins over the Brumbies and Waratahs in the last fortnight, it was impressive how the hosts restricted them in the first half.
The Highlanders were strong on defence and hardly slipped their tackles, despite the continuous wave after wave of attacks from the Crusaders. This forced the odd loose pass or knock-on, which denied several try scoring opportunities. However, their defensive efforts wavered in the second half and this allowed the Crusaders to seal the result through four tries after the break.
On the offensive, the Highlanders didn’t offer much threat. It looked a positive move to start 36-year-old Tony Brown at flyhalf as he added few fancy touches, but he stood too deep at first receiver and the Highlanders lost ground when met by the Crusaders’ rushed defence. Goal kicking also cost the home team as Brown missed 12 points with the boot while replacement pivot Robbie Robinson pulled one penalty wide.
What the Crusaders did well was remain consistent. Despite leaking several penalties in the first quarter, their loose forwards continued to boss the rucks while their attack never stifled. They created continuity through good passing and offloads, which was very effective against the tiring Highlanders in the second stanza.
Both teams started off strongly but it was the Crusaders who opened the scoring through centre Robbie Fruean as his dive for the line grazed the chalk. Brown had the opportunity to kick the Highlanders into the lead but only converted two of his six penalties. Flyhalf Dan Carter took advantage of Brown’s inaccuracy and kicked two penalties for a 13-6 half-time lead.
The Crusaders grabbed another early try after the restart, this time No 8 Kieran Read capitalising on a midfield turnover as he ran 40m out wide for his team’s second five-pointer. The Highlanders created a few opportunities thereafter, but they failed to build momentum as they were met by a strong and quick defence. It was all Crusaders thereafter.
The visitors wrapped up proceedings as fullback Israel Dagg grabbed a brace while replacement scrumhalf Kahn Fotuali’i and reserve prop Wyatt Crocket dotted down to secure maximum log points. The Highlanders claimed a consolation try at the death as flanker Adam Thomson scored in the corner.