Sunday Mar 20, 2011
You sensed it wasn't the Highlanders' day in the first minute when the usually reliable Tony Brown missed that comfortable penalty.
It was the sort of kick the imperturbable Brown would normally make with one hand tied behind his back, a university scarf tied across his eyes and with his shorts on fire.
He missed, and there was that inevitable sinking feeling - heightened when blockbusting Crusaders centre Robbie Fruean began thundering up the middle moments later.
The Highlanders had started strongly but that missed opportunity hung in the air like a bad smell at the vicar's tea party. Then, after an Andy Ellis quick tap, Fruean dodged and drove over the line and the video ref gave what seemed to be a kindly call for the try.
The Highlanders missed Jamie Mackintosh and Jason Rutledge and the scrum and second-string front row came second. Even when Mackintosh came on, the Crusaders cracked on the pressure, Kahn Fotuali'i's second half try coming directly from a scrum shunt.
It wasn't just the Highlanders discovering that you do not spell success e-r-r-o-r-s. The Crusaders are still not their vintage selves. There were too many mistakes and missed opportunities of their own.
But even Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph's effective fire and brimstone and do-the-basics-right approach won't always cover up injury-related personnel deficiencies and the spurning of chances against quality rivals.
Brown missed three of four penalty attempts in the first half hour as a misfiring Crusaders gave away plenty at the breakdown. Daniel Carter was missing his kicks as well (1 out of 3 in the same period). When lock Sam Whitelock was yellow-carded for yet another tackled ball offence, Brown finally re-calibrated his missile guidance system and dragged the Highlanders up to 7-6 just before halftime.
Somehow, and it is a mark of Joseph's Highlanders, they had dragged themselves back into contention although Carter's penalty after a thumping Sonny Bill Williams tackle rattled the Highlanders into another offence which Carter converted. The half finished as it began - with dubious quality, with Brown missing yet another kick at goal and Carter succeeding.
Whitelock's absence thus saw the scoreline increase by: Crusaders 6, Highlanders 0 - another opportunity lost.
The principle was underlined two minutes into the new half when a restored Whitelock got turnover ball from Corey Flynn. The big lock's perfectly timed pass put No 8 Kieran Read through a gap where he outpaced Jimmy Cowan to score.
That was effectively that as a competition and the Crusaders ran riot towards the end. Both these teams will win more games - and in better style than this.
The Highlanders defended stoutly for much of the game and competed well at the breakdowns, but they suffered for depth and had little in the way of penetration other than midfielder Shaun Treeby, fullback Ben Smith and the ever-present Adam Thomson.
For the Crusaders, Read's enormous energy saw him contributing everywhere. Whitelock had the better of the returning Tom Donnelly in the All Black locking stakes, the Crusaders' loose forwards were a better unit and that massive presence of Williams and Fruean in the midfield finally told.
Interestingly, All Black coach Graham Henry, when asked about the undoubted promise of Fruean recently, mentioned his work rate as an issue. Williams' tackles were crushing things, he grabbed a couple of turnovers and it was his offloads that led to tries by Dagg and Wyatt Crockett.
Fruean doesn't seem as much in evidence at the breakdown as with the ball in hand but at last he didn't get penalised. Many of the other Crusaders did - but they still managed a bonus point.
Highlanders 13 (A. Thomson try; T. Brown 2 pen, R. Robinson con), Crusaders 44 (R. Fruean, K. Read, I. Dagg 2, K. Fotuali'i, W. Crockett tries; D. Carter 3 con, 2 pen;. M. Berquist con). Halftime: 6-13.
By Paul Lewis