Highlanders hold their nerve
Otago franchise topple the Crusaders
Last Updated: 03/03/12 8:21am
The Highlanders made it two wins out of two as they toppled the Crusaders 27-24 after a breathless encounter in Dunedin.
With both sides looking to play open, running rugby, the match could have gone either way and remained in the balance throughout.
However, just as they did in their opening-day win over the Chiefs, the Highlanders were able to pull it out when it mattered the most.
The all-action Andrew Hore, the impressive Phil Burleigh and winger Hosea Gear scored the tries, while Lima Sopoaga impressed with a 12-point haul.
Israel Dagg and Andy Ellis responded with tries for the Crusaders, while Tyler Bleyendaal slotted over 14 points - although the young fly-half missed two late chances to win it.
It was a well deserved win for the Highlanders, who not only impressed in attack but were dominant at the breakdown.
With Chris Noakes, the kicking hero for the Highlanders on week one, sidelined and Colin Slade on the bench, it was Sopoaga who took over the kicking duties. And he was handed an earlier settle with a penalty in the second minute.
Opposite number Bleyendaal, though, missed his chance to ease into the game when his first shot at goal was pushed wide - but he made amends on 11 minutes to level the scores.
And it was the Crusaders that crossed for the first try - with a set move off the lineout seeing Matt Todd scythe through before the flanker supplied the scoring pass to Dagg. Bleyendaal added the extras.
The response from the Highlanders was immediate, though, with Burleigh and Adam Thomson making the hard yards before Hore sniped around the edges of the breakdown to score. Sopoaga's conversion made it 10-10 after 17 minutes.
The home side restored their three-point advantage through Sopoaga - although they perhaps deserved more after a couple of incisive breaks from John Hardie.
However they were rewarded for their efforts on the stroke of half-time as Burleigh evaded the attempted tackle of Kieran Read down the blindside to score in the corner. Sopoaga's conversion gave the Highlanders a 10-point lead at the break.
Bleyendaal immediately ate into that advantage with a penalty, before Ellis crashed over. Highlanders were guilty of coughing up possession, allowing the Crusaders to attack at pace with Adam Whitelock and Zac Guildford combining to find Ellis.
Bleyendaal missed the conversion, but he kicked the Crusaders in to a 21-20 lead on 54 minutes with a penalty.
Sopoaga missed a regulation shot at goal to put the Highlanders back in front - and the Crusaders made him pay with Bleyendaal's fourth penalty of the match.
The Highlanders refused to give up, though, and they were back in front when Gear showed his finishing prowess in the corner. A series of drives dragged in the Crusaders defence before superb hands from Tamati Ellison gave Gear enough room to score. Sopoaga added the conversion.
The home fans were left with their hearts in their mouth when Bleyendaal's long-range penalty to level the scores dropped under the bar.
And there was late drama as the scoreboard showed that the time was up - despite three minutes remaining. Colin Slade had booted the ball out on the full thinking the game was over and from lineout the Crusaders pack set Bleyendaal up for a drop-goal attempt, but his effort sailed wide.
And the Highlanders kept their nerve, just, to close out the win.