The Crusaders started slowly but finished with a gallop as they wrapped up a great 40-12 Vodacom Super Rugby win over the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday, and in so doing they significantly improved their chances of clinching the top-six place that will get them into the play-offs.
Reserve back Telusa Veinua ran the length of the field off the last move of a match that had everything to grab the Crusaders a four-try bonus point that lifts them to 51 points and adds interest to their clash with the Kiwi conference table topping Chiefs next Friday.
It was good thinking from Dan Carter that set Veinua on his way, his pace burning a few defenders while still in his own half and then he went in and out the last defenders to score one of the great solo tries of this year’s competition.
But if you looked at a highlights package, it would be a toss-up between that score and the first try of the match from Highlanders fullback Ben Smith over which was the most spectacular.
Smith scored thanks to an almost indescribably freaky pass from centre Tamati Ellison as the Highlanders swept to the left when they were on the attack and trailing 3-0 to a Carter penalty.
Ellison took the ball in front of his body and then swung it one handed to the opposite side as he swiveled on the run, the ball finding its way straight into the hands of Smith who cantered over.
That made it 7-3, and the Highlanders at that stage looked like they were really enjoying the chance to have a crack on attack as they had nothing to lose.
Unfortunately for them Colin Slade didn’t have his goalkicking boots on or they would have been 10-3 up after 15 minutes.
The Crusaders did have some chances on attack early on, and Highlanders skipper Andrew Hore played a role in thwarting them with some good turnovers, one of them just metres from the Highlanders' line.
If you could be critical of the Highlanders in those early minutes, it was that occasionally they looked panicky, and their discipline let them down, with the yellow-carding of flanker Jarrad Hoeata in the 19th minute proving a turning point in the game.
Hoeata was picked up on the big screen attacking Crusaders scrumhalf Andy Ellis’s head at a ruck. There was an insinuation that he may have been going for the eyes, but that wasn’t clear.
Nonetheless, it was a cardable offence, and Hoeata was on his way, with the Crusaders camping in Highlanders territory for almost all of the time he was off.
They tried everything in that time – setting up lineouts from penalties and opting once to take a scrum from a penalty – but for a while it looked like they might be denied by the tenacious Highlanders.
The break finally came in the 10th minute of Hoeata’s absence, with George Whitelock profiting from a great break and offload from Carter, who converted the try from in front to make it 10-7.
Carter was the undoubted star of the show on the night, scoring 25 points, 20 of those coming from his boot and the other five from an excellent try scored in the second half as he cleverly ran through the gap between a ruck and the Highlanders’ first defender.
CRUSADERS TAKING CONTROL
A Carter penalty made it 13-7 to the Crusaders at halftime, and although the Highlanders had enjoyed much of the play to suggest that was a false reflection on how the game had gone, the Crusaders were taking control of the game.
They may have stretched the lead immediately after the break when a Ma’a Nonu kick was charged down with his first act of the game as he came on as a replacement.
But the television replay showed that Colin Slade, in racing back to cover, was marginally ahead of Zac Guildford in dotting down.
The Crusaders didn’t waste long to make up for the narrow miss, however, with wing Tom Marshall breaking a tackle metres out from the Highlanders' line in the 44th minute and putting Ellis in for the try on his inside.
There was a brilliant response 10 minutes later from the Highlanders, with Hosea Gear starting the attack with a break out from inside his own half and the ball being carried through a couple of phases before eventually, with the help of some excellent passing and drawing of defenders by Nonu, Gear found himself in a position to thrust himself over in the left corner.
Unfortunately that was the last positive contribution from Nonu in the game, as soon after that he became the first player to be red-carded in Super Rugby this year, for a tip tackle.
It was clearly dangerous and illegal, and Nonu deserved to be sent off. As he left, on came Crusaders front-row forward Cory Flynn for his record 130th appearance, only to be yellow-carded immediately for attacking the face in a tackle.
So it was 14 against 14 for nearly 10 minutes, but that didn’t help the Highlanders, as Carter moved the scoreboard along with two penalties to make it 26-12 before he scored his try, which featured another good contribution from the ever-present and elusive Marshall, with 13 minutes to go.
It looked like the Crusaders were going to be denied their fourth try when the Highlanders attacked in the last minutes, but that reckoned without the good thinking of Carter, who set Veinua away as he spun the ball wide off a lineout on the Crusaders line with the hooter about to sound.
Highlanders – Tries: Ben Smith, Hosea Gear. Conversion: Colin Slade.
Crusaders – Tries: George Whitelock, Andy Ellis, Dan Carter, Telusa Veainu. Conversions: Carter (4). Penalties: Carter (4).