Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Carter steers Crusaders home

Dan Carter of the Crusaders scores a try in the tackle of Tamati Ellison of the Highlanders during the round 18 Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images.
Dan Carter of the Crusaders scores a try in the tackle of Tamati Ellison of the Highlanders during the round 18 Super Rugby match between the Highlanders and the Crusaders. Photo / Getty Images.

Highlanders 12
Crusaders 40

With the blood running hot, it took the cool head of Daniel Carter to steer the Crusaders home tonight.

A red card to Ma'a Nonu and a yellow to Corey Flynn told the story of the level of commitment. It wasn't dirty, but there was nothing held back - it was a night when emotions ran close to the surface.

Carter was the difference. He raked in several long kicks that mattered; ripped the Highlanders open with a daring run late in the first half, kicked his goals and then claimed a try that nailed the Highlanders' coffin shut.

It was classic Carter - and how much will the Crusaders have enjoyed that? How much will the All Blacks have enjoyed seeing their play-maker running so freely, controlling the game with such composure and class?

It was typical of him to stay focused mid-way through the second half as the game threatened to unravel. Nonu was more clumsy than malicious when he picked up James Marshall, lifted his legs and drove him into the turf.

Still, no matter the level of his intent - it was a dangerous tackle and referee Steve Walsh had no choice but to brandish a red.

A few minutes later and Corey Flynn had to nervously wait to see if his high shot on Aaron Smith would receive the same fate. It wasn't horrific by any means - but sometimes when emotions are running high and someone has already been red carded for a dangerous tackle...

The shame for the Highlanders was that the final score got away from them and did little to reflect their contribution. If Nonu had stayed might have all been different.

The Highlanders had flow and cohesion when Nonu came on for the second half.

Helped, too, by the arrival of Aaron Smith who was lively.

A Hosea Gear try got them back to 20-12 and the momentum was all theirs. But once Nonu was off - that was it. Carter stepped up and exploited the extra space.

Given the respective table positions of both sides, surprise will be at a minimum- the Crusaders beat the Highlanders as they were expected to. But it wasn't as routine as the scoreline suggests.

The Highlanders didn't play like the bottom-ranked team. Sure, they lost, and that will cement the perception of them as a team in disarray.

Not so. Last night did not confirm the Highlanders as a basket case. Far from it.. It confirmed there is depth of character to the Crusaders and that they are determined to keep themselves in this competition.

There was feeling - proper rage at times that threatened to spill over. Probably, in truth, it needed to. Sometimes in these tense local affairs when there is constant scuffling, a mother of a brawl is needed - get it all out in one blast and then drop it.

The positive - if that is the right term - was the constant presence of Sam Whitelock in the thick of the handbags. Amazingly, Brad Thorn wasn't the obvious enforcer at any point. Usually, certainly a few years back, any whiff of trouble and the giant mitts and square head of Thorn would be poised to snuff it out. Not last night - it was Whitelock who came across as the Alpha male: he even had the tenacity to grin and mock Jarrad Hoeata early in the game, something that no doubt led to the Highlanders blindside picking up a yellow card a few minutes later.

Hoeata, who is possession of a notoriously short fuse, pawed at the face of Andy Ellis in one ruck and had to walk for it.

The damage during his 10 minutes off was minimal in terms of the immediate - the Crusaders didn't score. But the Highlanders had to defend their line for most of that period - tough stuff, big tackles, lots of tackles and no respite.

Highlanders 12 (B. Smith, H. Gear tries; C. Slade cons)
Crusaders 40 (G. Whitelock, A. Ellis, D. Carter, T. Vienua tries; D. Carter 4 cons, 4 pens)

- Herald on Sunday

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