Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Highlanders prove to be knockout kings

Highlanders 34 Crusaders 26
Waisake Naholo of the Highlanders scores a try against the Crusaders. Photo / Getty
Waisake Naholo of the Highlanders scores a try against the Crusaders. Photo / Getty

A truly heavyweight contest - in all senses - finished with the Highlanders beating the Crusaders to join their southern cousins at the top of the table, another reminder after they beat the Chiefs in Hamilton last weekend that the champions still retain a knockout punch.

The three New Zealand franchises are equal top on 37 points after this bonus point victory from the Highlanders in a seething atmosphere under the roof in Dunedin, with the Crusaders retaining their top spot only by virtue of their better points differential.

After a tidy start from the visitors their ears were ringing against a Highlanders team who proved once again that they are among the best at beating even the tightest defences with their clever passes, angles of running and enthusiastic support play. Once the ball is in their hands, the excitement is palpable.

This was a game which began with ferocious intensity and stayed that way.

There was niggle throughout, a sinbinning for Highlanders lock Joe Wheeler, and several controversial decisions from referee Chris Pollock.

The fact these players know each other so well just added to the intensity, with former Crusader Luke Whitelock playing a blinder at No8 against All Blacks captain Kieran Read, Lima Sopoaga pulling the strings as usual at No10 and Elliot Dixon putting in his usual shift at blindside flanker.

The hero for the Highlanders, however, was centre Matt Faddes, an unheralded player who cut the Crusaders to shreds with his pace and made it a difficult night indeed for Kieron Fonotia.

Faddes scored two tries, that man Waisake Naholo also scored two - just like last week - and, with Liam Squire scoring one when he came on at loose forward the Crusaders were well and truly beaten.

So dominant at the start, in the end they appeared almost passive spectators.

The Highlanders were perhaps lucky to be on the board first, as they were beneficiaries of a generous penalty from Pollock, who ruled that Johnny McNicholl had tackled Ben Smith late.

From there it was all Crusaders, who controlled possession and were making breaks almost at will, particularly with inside passes - a clear tactic to catch the Highlanders' defence short.

Richie Mo'unga, Owen Franks, Wyatt Crockett, Matt Todd and Read all found themselves in space, but while both Read and Luke Romano both got over the line, both tries were ruled out, the first due to the No8 losing the ball and the second because of an alleged double movement. That was a close one.

Mo'unga's boot put the Crusaders as many as 9-3 up, before the Highlanders struck back via Naholo, Faddes and Naholo again in short order.

The three tries would have been devastating as counter thrusts after the early pressure they were put under and suggested once again they are the kings of the counter-attack.

Wheeler was yellow carded for a late shoulder charge on Mo'unga, a marginal call, with the Crusaders striking back through loose forward Jordan Taufua.

Just as the Crusaders had a sniff, Squire quickly snuffed it out with a try of his own, and the capacity crowd of more than 23,000 went wild. As the fulltime siren went, Crusaders fullback Israel Dagg went over thanks to a superb offload from Read.

The Crusaders certainly aren't finished yet, but their streak of victories has been cut at eight. It was also their first match against a New Zealand team since round two when they beat the Blues in Christchurch, a reminder, as if we needed one, that the Kiwi teams are out on their own in this competition.

Highlanders 34 (Waisake Naholo 2, Matt Faddes 2, Liam Squire tries; Lima Sopoaga pen, 3 cons)
Crusaders 26 (Jordan Taufua, Israel Dagg tries; Richie Mo'unga 4 pens, 2 cons)
Halftime: 20-12

- NZ Herald

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