Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Crusaders claim thriller

Colin Slade bursts through a hole in the Crusaders' narrow victory over the Highlanders. Photo / Getty
Colin Slade bursts through a hole in the Crusaders' narrow victory over the Highlanders. Photo / Getty

Highlanders 30
Crusaders 32

A classic game and maybe the cruellest ending. Patrick Osborne was adjudged to have simultaneously placed the ball on the junction of both the goalline and touchline in the last act of the game.

That decision was huge. The respective seasons of both teams hung in the balance. It wasn't easy to make but it was the right call. Emotionally, the momentum was with the home side. They had fought back with two great tries in the last 15 minutes and held the ball for the better part of the last five to set up Osborne's chance.

It was brave, it was skilful but it was also massively infuriating: the chance was there 10 times over for Hayden Parker to slip into the pocket and drop the goal. But the Highlanders wanted that try. They pushed for that try and they got oh so close. But oh so close doesn't win championships.

The Crusaders, understandably, erupted when that final decision was made and fled to Israel Dagg to congratulate him, for it was his tackle on Osborne that saved the day.

It was his forwards, though, who through their graft and set-piece work, and then in those final minutes with their defence, who set up the victory. Giant wing Nemani Nadolo has to be credited for much of the Crusaders' go-forward as well. The big wing was a handful, but not the most accomplished on the pitch.

That honour belonged to Malakai Fekitoa. There has been plenty of talk about Fekitoa being the All Black heir apparent to Conrad Smith. Maybe he's actually more than that: on last night's evidence, Fekitoa is the sort of player who may sneak up faster than anyone realises.

Everyone knows Smith is a brilliant All Black: an organiser, a passer, a tackler and old head who never really does much wrong. But Fekitoa has something about him that says by the end of this year, he may be knocking hard on the door to be given that No 13 shirt.
His footwork was quite brilliant last night. He managed to get away from the Crusaders defence almost every time he had the ball: a few quick steps, a giant fend and he'd be off, blasting into space on the outside.

The Crusaders, though, might have been guilty of missing a few tackles, but once their line was breached, they scrambled superbly while their counter rucking was even better. Richie McCaw led the way on that - in his usual close to the wind strategies.

There was plenty of ill towards McCaw as a result. The All Black captain appeared willing to push the line at every breakdown he was at. It was quite incredible the range of ways he could test the nerve and patience of the Highlanders and referee Glen Jackson. So much of what he did was borderline legal - but it was done so quickly, so effortlessly and expertly it was hard to tell whether it was genius or simply cheating.

Jackson felt there were too many occasions in the first half when it was the latter and did the unthinkable - he yellow carded the great man and in McCaw's absence, the Highlanders sprung to life and found themselves.

The opening 20 minutes had been dominated by the Crusaders. They owned the ball and they owned the Highlanders at the scrum. Really owned them - walking over the top of them a few times. And that was with an All Black front-row on the bench. The Highlanders scored tow tries in McCaw's absence, clawing their back into the game before having to do it all over again in the final quarter.

Highlanders 30 (G. Robinson, P. Osborne, M. Fekitoa, B. Smith tries; L. Sopoaga con, pen; H. Parker pen, con)
Crusaders 32 (J. Taufua, T. Perry, N. Laulala, N. Nadolo tries; C. Slade 2 pens, 3 cons)

- Herald on Sunday

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