Fitness and strength in depth are proving invaluable at this early stage of the Crusaders season, with the defending champions again staging a late comeback to win a trial match.
Against the Highlanders in front of an excellent crowd of 6500 at Alpine Energy Stadium in Timaru last night, the Crusaders came from 17 points down to win 40-17.
In the end it was a convincing victory for the Crusaders, the 45th-minute introduction of 11 substitutes including All Blacks Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Brad Thorn, Andy Ellis and Ben Franks making a big impact.
The six tries to two victory contained a lot of positives for the Crusaders coaching trio of Todd Blackadder, Mark Hammett and Daryl Gibson, with the Highlanders competing very well early on. The southerners were particularly effective in the ruck, scrum and defensive parts of the game.
New captain Jimmy Cowen played the first half hour and he showed with his fine performance how important he will be for the Highlanders this seson.
The Crusaders also fought back from a big deficit to beat the Western Force in Perth last week and the strong finishes are a testament to the fitness of the squad.
Fullback/wing Jared Payne, also a sub, had a hand in the first three tries for the Crusaders and scored the final touchdown. He showed a lot of pace and ability in setting up Isaac Ross, Kieran Read and Stephen Brett for five pointers.
Prop Wyatt Crockett, another ‘super-sub’, scored the fourth try for the Crusaders, with second-five Ryan Crotty also getting on the scoresheet when crashing over in the corner.
The defending champions were down 0-10 with 15 minutes on the clock, an early Daniel Bowden penalty and converted David Hall try punishing a scratchy start littered with many errors.
A Brett break at the start of the second 30 hinted of better things to come for the Crusaders.
However, it was Bowden who opened the scoring in the second 30, the first-five capitalising on a series of attacks by the Highlanders to ghost over in a tackle near the posts.
After that it was one-way traffic for the Crusaders. Payne was a standout for them, showing speed, elusiveness and fine judgment to make the breaks which put Ross, Read and Brett away for tries. Colin Slade also shone at first five, looking very sharp and kicking five from six conversion attempts..
Leon MacDonald looked strong and fit at fullback and flanker Read also made his presence felt.
It was another good hit-out for the players and the coaches. The Crusaders will wrap up their preparation with an inter-squad hit-out at Rugby Park, Christchurch, on Thursday night.
The first match of the season is against the Chiefs at AMI Stadium on Saturday, February 14.