The Crusaders recovered from their two-match blip to get their Vodacom Super Rugby campaign back on track with a convincing 24-8 win over the Highlanders in the south island derby in Christchurch on Saturday.
The Crusaders' superiority on the night was more comprehensive than the final scoreline on an inclement, wet night might indicate, with the Highlanders’ gutsy defence being almost as big a talking point from the game than the fact that the Crusaders won.
The Crusaders could easily have scored several more tries than they did, but full credit to the Highlanders for the way they simply refused to concede a try against a team that dominated possession and territory.
Although under the kosh from the start, the Highlander may feel that the turning point against them came on the stroke of halftime. That was when Crusaders centre Robbie Freuan went over the line on his back after receiving the ball as first receiver as his team camped on the Highlanders line. Freaun reached over and dotted down as he went over for the first try of the match.
That turned a 9-0 lead into a 16-0 advantage at the break, and on the night that was a significant difference in the sense that the Crusaders had played with a strong wind at their backs in the first half. Had the Highlanders been down by just nine points at the break, they may have fancied their chances.
As it was, centre Jason Emery went over off a skip pass to score near the corner as the Highlanders produced a clever bit of play from a recycle right on the Crusaders’ line. Hayden Parker hit the post with the conversion but the Highlanders would have been boosted by the score.
The extra confidence didn’t help them though as the Tyler Bleyendaal kicked his fourth penalty of the match 13 minutes into the half to take the Crusaders’ lead to 14 points, and while Colin Slade, who came on as a replacement, kicked one for the Highlanders with 16 minutes to go, the Crusaders’ superiority in most aspects of the game was by then complete.
Their path to victory was first laid in the lineouts, with the Highlanders struggling to win their own ball in the first half, and the Crusaders' scrum became more dominant as the match progressed too. At halftime the stats showed that the Crusaders had enjoyed more than 60% possession and 80% territory, and while in the second half they never had the wind behind them, their statistical advantage didn’t change.
The Crusaders went over the Highlanders line a few times only to be held up, and one TMO decision went against them, as the hosts camped in the Highlanders’ territory in the last quarter of the game. The Highlanders needed to get their hands on the ball and into the Crusaders' half if they wanted to win the game but that was never a likelihood.
That they did do though was show that while they have now suffered eight consecutive defeats and are out of the championship race, they retain their commitment to the cause, as shown by the desperate way they defended as the Crusaders time and again smashed away at them near the line.
The Crusaders' backs were occasionally a bit lateral but that was rectified by the Crusaders taking more responsibility by driving up the middle, and there was a fair bit of inevitability to the second try, which was scored by Tom Taylor after what had seemed an age of the Crusaders attacking without being able to finish. The win brings the Crusaders back into conference contention in New Zealand.
Crusaders – Tries: Robert Fruean, Tom Taylor. Conversion: Tyler Bleyendaal. Penalties: Blyendaal (4).
Highlanders – Try: Jason Emery. Penalty: Colin Slade.