Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa: Highlanders stun Crusaders in record win

Highlanders 33
Crusaders 12

No one saw one of the great southern derby upsets, or a record-setting win for the Highlanders against the Crusaders, coming.

Whatever happens for the remainder of Super Rugby Aotearoa, the Highlanders can hang Tony Brown’s cheese cutter hat on this outstanding performance, one that breathes life into the quest for the title.

From season-ending injuries, to leading players being stood down, everything was stacked against the Highlanders this week. They used that adversity to produce a galvanised effort that rattled and stunned the previously unbeaten Crusaders to record their first win in eight attempts over their southern neighbours.

With six Highlanders players stood down for breaking team standards by hosting a boozy house party last week, most tipped this result to be a forgone conclusion.

After banking four wins from as many games leading into their bye week the Crusaders would, surely, continue on their comfortably merry way.

The Highlanders, 7-1 outsiders, had other ideas. Their first-half performance was as good as it gets from any team venturing to Christchurch. And unlike previous teams, they continued to apply the heat throughout the second half to complete the unlikely ambush.

Through fast, committed defence, a variety of attacking kicks that found the ground to turn the Crusaders around, breakdown turnovers, continuity and patience on attack the Highlanders reduced the locals to a bumbling mess at times.

For once, nothing was on the Crusaders terms. For once, they were mere mortals.

The Highlanders established a 16-0 first-half lead with intent and ambition in everything they did. From there, they didn’t just hang on. They forced the Crusaders to chase the game and pressured the defending champions into uncharacteristic mistakes at near every turn – Will Jordan attempting to grubber from his own line but one example.

While playmaker Mitchell Hunt dominated proceedings the Highlanders pack deserve immense credit for matching their illustrious opponents to take away the Crusaders’ vaunted set piece strengths like no one has managed to achieve this season.

Without the usual front-foot platform Richie Mo’unga could not inject his magical touches – instead throwing speculative intercepts in a bid to spark his team. Not even a 69th-minute David Havili try could buckle the Highlanders.

Hunt, against his former team, was hugely influential. He thrived with added responsibility in Josh Ioane’s absence by keeping his men at the desired end of the field and ticking the scoreboard over as the Crusaders regularly infringed.

Connor Garden-Bachop chimed in frequently from fullback and Pari Pari Parkinson was again a big presence up front.

Billy Harmon, the former Crusaders turned Highlanders flanker, stepped two defenders and carried two more across the line after consistent pressure from the visitors to claim the opening try.

Yet the Highlanders’ commitment was truly evident in breakdown turnovers snaffled by the likes of halfback Folau Fakatava and wing Jona Nareki.

The Crusaders were, conversely, well off the pace. They pushed offloads, lacked urgency to the breakdown and conceded eight first-half penalties alone. It seemed as though a different team had emerged from their week off.

It was only a matter of time before the Crusaders mounted a comeback. As they so often do, they struck three minutes into injury time before the break with Codie Taylor maintaining his lead atop this season’s try-scoring tally by burrowing over with Ethan Blackadder on his shoulder.

On any other night the Crusaders would regroup and recover to storm over the top of the Highlanders in the second half. Not this time, though. This time they didn’t get close.

This was the Highlanders’ night.

In the face of successive losses to the Blues and Hurricanes either side of their bye, injury deflections to Liam Squire and Freedom Vahaakolo and off-field controversy, against all odds they pulled off one of the best wins in their history.

Recording their biggest win over the Crusaders, and handing them their fourth-worst home defeat, says everything about where this result ranks.

Highlanders 33 (Billy Harmon, Michael Collins, Connor Garden-Bachop tries; Mitchell Hunt 3 cons, 4 pens)
Crusaders 12 (Codie Taylor, David Havili tries; Richie Mo’unga con)
HT: 16-7

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