The Highlanders will travel to Auckland this week for their match against the Blues at Eden Park with an increasing sense of desperation.

Their defeat to the Crusaders in Dunedin, a 30-27 reverse after they were leading 27-6 seven minutes after halftime, was bad enough but would have been additionally painful given the way they lost a week earlier to the Chiefs.

They are at the bottom of the New Zealand conference with only a losing bonus point, so they badly need a win to stay in touch with the likes of the Hurricanes and Chiefs.

That said, they also played their part in an extraordinary rollercoaster match played in front of a noisy crowd of 20,000 which served as another example of a New Zealand derby being on a different level to anything else in this flawed competition.

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The Highlanders scrum was under severe pressure in the second half against the Crusaders and will come up against a Blues team on Saturday which has scrummed well this season and is likely to welcome back All Blacks lock Patrick Tuipulotu and loose forward Jerome Kaino to the starting line-up.

They will be without fullback Ben Smith, out with concussion since the 24-15 loss to the Chiefs, and loose forward James Lentjies, who dislocated an elbow in the first minute against the Crusaders.

To make matters worse, their normally consistent attack just isn't firing -- and some of that must be attached to the absence of Smith, one of the best in the world on the counter.

The Highlanders scored three tries at Forsyth Barr Stadium, and all came from set plays built around either the lineout or scrum. They made only six clean breaks compared with the Crusaders' 12. A week earlier, they made all the breaks against the Chiefs but couldn't get beyond the tryline.

It's still early in the competition, and they have one of the toughest starts of any team, but another defeat, against a Blues team looking to respond to their 41-26 hiding by the Chiefs would put the Highlanders in trouble.

Following the Blues match, Tony Brown's side must travel to Wellington to play the champion Hurricanes. A week later, they face a tough trip to Canberra to play the Brumbies.

While Brown called the yellow card shown to centre Malakai Fekitoa for a mid-air collision with just under 10 minutes to play a "massive moment", the momentum was with the Crusaders at that point.

"It probably won them the game in the end," Brown said afterwards. "Me, personally, it's play on. That's just footy. Everyone was going for the ball. Play on.

"Maybe Malakai could have stopped that try at the end with the extra number, I'm not sure. But the yellow card was probably the biggest moment of the game."

The red card shown to Blues loose forward Steven Luatua just before halftime at Waikato Stadium was far more significant to the result.

Luatua's off-the-ball high tackle on Tim Nanai-Williams showed a severe lack of judgement and effectively handed the game to the Chiefs, although the Blues rallied late following the introduction of the team's All Blacks.

Three of them -- Tuipulotu, Charlie Faumuina and Rene Ranger -- scored unanswered tries.