Highlanders overcome off-field drama to end Crusaders' run
SUPER RUGBY AOTEAROA MATCH REPORT: The Highlanders overcame a week of high drama to end the Crusaders’ unbeaten run in the New Zealand’s domestic competition.
The win comes after six players – Josh Ioane, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Sione Misiloi, Patelesio Tomkinson and Daniel Lienert-Brown – were dropped from Friday’s match following a breach of team protocol.
The disciplinary action and subsequent media fall-out follows alcohol-fuelled parties at the home of All Black flyhalf Ioane.
Outscoring the defending champions by three tries to two in Christchurch – a place when the home team seldom lose – the Highlanders scored a commanding 33-12 win
It not only handed the Crusaders their first loss of the year and only their second loss in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
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It was a masterful display from Mitch Hunt that took the make-shift Highlanders to victory.
Hunt, a former Crusaders flyhalf who moved south to escape the shadow of Richie Mo’unga, engineered an attacking game plan that rattled the defending champions, as well as landing 18 points from the boot.
Mo’unga, and the 11 other internationals who started in the star-studded Crusaders, had a match to forget with a succession of handling errors, misdirected passes and penalties for not releasing in the tackle.
As runaway competition leaders they started as hot favourites against a Highlanders side without those six prominent players.
The result was a patched-up, but fired up side with nothing to lose and who complimented their rock-solid defence with a smart attack whether running or kicking for territory.
Captain Ash Dixon said it was a “tough week” but they never lost faith in their systems.
“Our execution came off tonight because that’s something that’s been lacking and I’m really proud,” he said of the record victory over their South Island neighbours.
“When you can apply pressure and have the ball in the right areas of the field and come away with points, there was nothing special, it was pretty simple but it was effective.”
Crusaders captain Scott Barrett said there were no excuses for the overwhelming loss.
“They played smart, they put it in behind us and probably made us play a bit in conditions that probably suit running,” he said.
“They put pressure on at the breakdown and they were patient. It hurts, especially at home, so we’ll look hard in the mirror as a team and we have to get better.”
Scrumhalf Folau Fakatava repeatedly won turnover ball allowing the Highlanders to spend most of the first half in Crusaders territory picking up points from three penalties by former Crusader Mitch Hunt who also converted a try by another former Crusader Billy Harmon.
On the stroke of half-time, the Crusaders put their first points on the board when Codie Taylor scored handy to the posts with Richie Mo’unga adding the extra points.
The Highlanders continued to capitalise on Crusaders’ errors in the second half with another Hunt penalty and a try to Michael Collins.
When David Havili scored the second Crusaders’ try to narrow the gap to 12-26 with 10 minutes remaining, the Highlanders put the result beyond doubt with a late try to Connor Garden-Bachop.
Man of the match: You can look at the loose trio of Ethan Blackadder, Sione Havili and Cullen Grace in a disjointed Crusaders performance. Loose forward Billy Harmon set the tome for the Highlanders with his workrate – nine carries, a team-high 13 tackles and an amazing job at the breakdown. Scrumhalf Folau Fakatava also produced a great first half – even winning some crucial turnovers at the breakdown. Our award goes to Highlanders flyhalf Mitch Hunt – the No.10 pulling the strings in sublime fashion and kicked 18 points, converting all three tries and landing three penalties.
For the Crusaders
Tries: Taylor, Havili
For the Highlanders
Tries: Harmon, Collins, Garden-Bachop
Cons: Hunt 3
Pens: Hunt 4
Crusaders: 15 Will Jordan, 14 George Bridge, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 David Havili, 11 Leicester Fainga’anuku, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Cullen Grace, 7 Sione Havili Talitui, 6 Ethan Blackadder, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Scott Barrett (captain), 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Brodie McAlister, 17 George Bower, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Mitchell Dunshea, 20 Whetukamokamo Douglas, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Fergus Burke, 23 Sevu Reece.
Highlanders: 15 Connor Garden-Bachop, 14 Scott Gregory, 13 Michael Collins, 12 Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Folau Fakatava, 8 Kazuki Himeno, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Paripari Parkinson, 4 Bryn Evans, 2 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 1 Ethan De Groot.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Ayden Johnstone, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 Hugh Renton, 21 Aaron Smith (co-captain), 22 Caleb Makene, 23 James Lentjes.
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant referees: Paul Williams, James Doleman
TMO: Ben O’Keeffe