Highlanders 27 Crusaders 30

A stunning Seta Tamanivalu try capped an improbable comeback that carried the Crusaders to an incredible victory over the Highlanders tonight.

The visitors shocked the Forsyth Barr Stadium crowd by scoring three tries in the final 15 minutes and earning a win that had appeared unlikely for almost the entire match.

It wasn't just that the Crusaders trailed throughout and, shortly after halftime, fell 21 points behind. It was that they were facing down what initially appeared to be a trademark Highlanders performance, with the home side combining an obdurate defence, an electric attack and a solid set piece that produced all three of their tries.

But, after those three facets carried them to a 27-6 lead, they Highlanders collapsed under the weight of unrelenting pressure from the opposition and shipped 24 unanswered points in the final half hour.

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It was as if all the intensity was too much for Tony Brown's side, having suffered through their second straight New Zealand derby to open the season. The Crusaders formed a formidable opposition - there was no doubt about that - but the four tries they scored to win the match were indicative of an opposition wilting under the strain.

Which is rather atypical of the recent vintage of Highlanders, who won a title and backed that up with another playoff appearance by grinding out games they allowed opposition to dominate.

As usual, the southern side were content throughout the game to allow the Crusaders to string together multiple phases. They kicked constantly and contested well in the air. And they tackled with real menace to force timely turnovers and prevent the opposition from threatening to find the try line in the first half.

And, when they did have their hands on the ball, the Highlanders produced moments of real quality to seize command of the match.

Most of those moments came courtesy of set moves, unleashing two in the opening half and another in the second that were as straightforward as they were effective.

The first, from a lineout, saw Waisake Naholo slip an inside ball for substitute Gareth Evans to race clear and score the game's first try. The second, from a scrum, was finished by the wing himself, collecting a clever Aaron Smith grubber while making the most of a friendly bounce and some anonymous defence.

And the third was the best of the lot, starting with another lineout and finished once more by Naholo after a canny kick over the top from Lima Sopoaga put Malakai Fekitoa into space.

That try appeared to continue a pattern established in the first half - the home side taking their opportunities on attack and bending without breaking on defence - and seemed to be carrying the Highlanders to certain victory.

But all the pressure they were being forced to face gradually its toll, as a number of infringements in their own 22 allowed the Crusaders back into the contest. A penalty try - automatically seven points under the new rules - gave the visitors some hope and that increased when David Havili crossed in the corner.

The Highlanders were suddenly sweating and a yellow card to Malakai Fekitoa only added to their nerves. And they were soon proven right to worry, as Whetu Douglas pulled the Crusaders within two points before Tamanivalu landed the dagger blow.

Highlanders 27 (G. Evans, W. Naholo 2 tries; L. Sopoaga pen, 3 cons)
Crusaders 30 (Penalty try, D. Havili, W. Douglas, S. Tamanivalu; M. Hunt 2 pens, M. McKenzie con)
Halftime: 17-6