Crusaders storm Southern fortress

Three second-half tries and the loss of captain Anton Oliver proved too much for the feisty men from the kilted deep-south.

Yet it was far from the comfortable win the final margin suggests. Earlier, with Highlanders No 11 Hayden Pederson impressing in his first Super 12 appearance in almost two months and regular centre Anthony Tuitavake causing plenty of headaches on the right wing, Highlanders coach Greg Cooper's backline reshuffle looked set to pay huge dividends.

Fuelled by the possession won by outstanding young lock James Ryan, second-five Seilala Mapusua was another to take advantage of frequent lapses in the Crusaders midfield defence.

Indeed, no love lost here. Crusaders first-five Dan Carter gave his old team-mate Ben Blair a dose of the early jitters with a high-ball you could have a birthday waiting underneath. The fullback couldn�t hold on, but the boot of his own No 10 Nick Evans drove the Crusaders back in the 4th minute.

No 8 Paul Miller stamped his Highland seal on the match with a storming run next, although the big man�s mistake at a ruck gifted Carter the first points of the match, a penalty.

An early 3-0 lead to the Crusaders. One that dissolves with perhaps the most bizarre try of the 2005 Super 12: the Crusaders snatching back possession after a 30m break from Highlanders second-five Mapusua, only for veteran halfback Justin Marshall�s unsighted pass to find... the retreating Pedersen. The No 11 promptly turned and scampered 12m for the 15th minute touchdown.

Blair�s sideline conversion was spectacular: 7-3 Highlanders.

The blow clearly rattled the visitors, who almost handed the Highlanders other wing Tuitavake an intercept try from the restart. Yet, despite the uncharacteristic errors and Oliver�s men finding space out wide, the Highlanders couldn�t manage to add further points.

Worse than that, their inspirational captain was off with a calf injury in the 29th minute. Seconds later, Blair missed his best opportunity to make an emphatic statement about the Crusaders draft... spilling the ball with the line open after another Tuitavake burst.

Instead, Carter added the next points, his second penalty in the 37th minute.

Halftime score: 7-6 Highlanders

Second 40. The Highlanders surge. But all the tartan in Carisbrook can�t prevent Crusaders fullback Leon MacDonald from turning something into nothing after some poor Highlanders kicking throws away possession.

Second-five Aaron Mauger was the man who eventually chased the ball into the Highlanders in-goal to finish the commanding 55m counter-attack, and Carter�s conversion handed them back a 13-7 lead.

Evans responded with a 48th minute penalty. 13-10 Crusaders.

Not for long, as Marshall made amends for his first-half oversight with a sniping run from short-range to cross for five-points.

20-10 Highlanders and, as the match entered its final quarter the Highlanders rediscovered the tight forward-play that made them so dominant in the first half. The Crusaders reply? Slow that ball down and stem the tide. Referee Steve Walsh warned captain Reuben Thorne about it, and three penalties later, Evans banged over his second three-pointer.

That was the end of the Bravehearts. Mauger�s second try in the 77th minute sealed the Highlanders fate. But the bonus-point that could yet secure the Crusaders a home semifinal eluded them.

They meet the Hurricanes in Round 12 next week.

Final score: 27-13 Crusaders


Crusaders. Tries: Aaron Mauger (2), Justin Marshall. Conversions: Dan Carter (3). Penalties: Carter (2).

Highlanders. Tries: Hayden Pedersen. Conversions: Ben Blair. Penalties: Nick Evans (2).

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