Comeback kings the Crusaders weren't required to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat this weekend, but the Highlanders had to and the way they went about it must rate as the highlight of their season so far.

They trailed the whole game against the Brumbies in Canberra until taking an 18-13 lead with eight minutes remaining, but, after defending their line against a series of scrums for what would have seemed to them like hours, they then had to endure an extra four minutes after the final hooter as the Brumbies won an attacking penalty which opened the door to a lineout drive, one of the home team's strengths.

That they shut that down despite the Brumbies' backs stampeding in to lend their weight owed much to the desperation of the Highlanders' pack and vocal efforts of Aaron Smith and fellow All Black Ben Smith.

After picking up only one win against New Zealand opposition in their first four rounds (against the Blues), this was a welcome and very necessary victory for the southerners. The celebrations of the two Smiths and their teammates afterwards showed that was clear to them.

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Loose forward Luke Whitelock was particularly impressive in the second half in driving his team, who badly missed first-five Lima Sopoaga, out with a hamstring injury suffered against the Blues at Eden Park.

A defeat at the traditionally hostile GIO Stadium would have left the Highlanders well adrift in the New Zealand conference. They are still last on nine competition points, but have kept in touch with the Blues (11), although both are a long way back from the top-placed Crusaders (21), who had an easier time of it in beating the Force 45-17 in Christchurch.

A negative for Scott Robertson's men was that they were again mystified by the referee's scrum rulings.

They were heavily penalised there against the Reds in one of their three fightback wins despite the set piece being a strength. They were later told by referees' boss Lyndon Bray that they were in fact not at fault at Suncorp Stadium, but it seems his message didn't reach Rohan Hoffmann at AMI Stadium.

One six-minute period in the second half dragged as Hoffmann was forced to constantly re-set scrums and Crusaders replacement prop Tim Perry was made the fall guy with a yellow card.

"Everyone was frustrated," said Robertson afterwards of the re-sets. "From in the stands to the ref, to the players. It was a shame, because there was some good footy around it."

The Brumbies will have been frustrated that they couldn't make the Highlanders pay in those final minutes in Canberra, but Stephen Larkham's team couldn't deliver the killer blow.

"It was a bloody tough battle," said Highlanders coach Tony Brown. "For us, it was just a huge relief to get the job done in the end.

"I thought not only our maul defence, but also our scrum, held up under real pressure. And that was always going to be key to winning the game."