Crusaders hold on in nervy finish against Highlanders despite Klein red card


This article first appeared on Stuff and was republished with permission.

The Crusaders can thank a surgical second-half defensive stand for their tense 17-14 win over the Highlanders in Christchurch on Friday.

Unable to string anything together in the second-half, they absorbed raid after raid by a fired-up Highlanders side, one desperate to get their campaign off the mark.

Every time the visitors threatened – they did plenty of times – someone came up with a defensive play, even after replacement hooker Shilo Klein was sent off late in the game for a dangerous tackle on Ethan de Groot.

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One of those players was wing Sevu Reece, who twice earned crunch breakdown penalties when the Highlanders were sniffing.

That said, the Highlanders didn’t do themselves any favours. Mitch Hunt missed touch from inside the 22m and pushed a penalty attempt wide-right in a game all points were scored in the first half.

Folau Fakatava, having burst into the Crusaders’ half late, spilling the ball in contact was another.

Indeed, it will hurt the Highlanders, whose scrum was bossed all night, but otherwise turned in a typically gutsy performance.

They continued where they finished off against the Blues a week ago when they played their best 40 minutes of the season in the second half.

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They came out of the gates sharply, stringing phases together and generally looking like a significantly improved unit from the one they resembled the first month of the competition.

It was a familiar face in Christchurch who opened the scoring, with Highlanders hooker Andrew Makalio barrelling over from a lineout move down the short side.

Gregory scores after Hunt’s set-up

Makalio carried a couple of his former teammates over the chalk with the type of barnstorming run he produced many times during his five years at the Crusaders between 2017-2021.

The Crusaders’ response was swift – prop Fletcher Newell bashed his way over after a David Havili chip kick – to knot the game up.

Not for long. Another former Crusader – Hunt – smartly fooled the hosts’ defensive line and put midfielder Scott Gregory over in the 19th minute to put his side 14-7 up.

It was clear the Crusaders knew they were in for a heck of a fight, even more so when captain Scott Barrett asked Richie Mo’unga to line up a penalty from 40 minutes.

He nailed it before centre Leicester Fainga’anuku smashed and bashed his way over the line at the half-hour mark to give his side their first lead of the night.

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