DUNEDIN: Otago rugby may be flat broke, but their Highlanders are flush with talent, optimism and followers as they continued their impressive start to the new Super Rugby season last night.
Jamie Joseph's men, at what must be the noisiest rugby stadium in New Zealand, stunned the Crusaders with a 27-24, three-tries-to-two victory that was just reward for a fabulously committed and skilful performance - even if it did end in farcical fashion.
After Hosea Gear's 69th-minute try put the home team in front for the final time, the Highlanders twice kicked the ball out thinking they had won the match because the ground clock showed time up. In the first instance there were still three minutes left, in the second, one.
But the Highlanders survived their faux pas and held on for a victory that sent 23,000 joyous souls out into a cool Dunedin night to celebrate.
This was the best match of the season so far. The Highlanders won because their forwards were more aggressive at the breakdown and shaded the possession battle. They also finished well and made best use of the good conditions to run in the tries when they had to.
The Highlanders deservedly took a 20-10 lead into the sheds after a surging first half where they scored two tries to one and made most of the play.
It was the visitors who scored the first try, after an early penalty apiece. From a lineout, Robbie Fruean was the target in midfield, in a flash Matt Todd was through and Israel Dagg was finishing handy to the posts.
Two minutes later the Highlanders were back on terms at 10-10 when Andrew Hore did very well from about 15 metres out to barrel over. HIs try was followed by Lima Sopoaga slotting a second penalty and Burleigh sneaking a try before the break.
But the Crusaders were not going to go quietly. Tyler Bleyendaal slotted a second penalty, Andy Ellis their second try and it was game back on at 18-20. Two further Bleyendaal three-pointers followed and the visitors led 24-20. But this is a Highlanders outfit made of much sterner stuff and Gear's excellent try sealed victory
HIGHLANDERS 27 (Phil Burleigh, Hosea Gear, Andrew Hore tries Lima Sopoaga 3 cons 2 pens) bt CRUSADERS 24 (Israel Dagg, Andrew Ellis tries Tyler Bleyendaal con 4 pens) at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Referee: Jaco Peyper.