Friday, June 01, 2012

Highlanders playoff hopes are on the rocks NATHAN BURDON 02/06/2012 

The Highlanders' playoffs hopes are on the rocks after they were rocked by a very good Crusaders team in Christchurch last night.
The 51-18, eight-tries-to-two defeat has left the southern franchise probably needing to win both of their remaining games after the June test window – against the Chiefs and Reds, no less – to be a chance of getting beyond the regular season.
When they look back on last night's performance, and for those not involved in the All Black programme they will have plenty of time for navel-gazing, the Highlanders will reflect on a game where they were turned into hapless victims by a Crusaders team that is hitting form at the right end of the competition.
It was the worst loss the Highlanders have suffered to the Crusaders and the worst loss of coach Jamie Joseph's term at the franchise.
They started poorly, laying off around the fringes and giving the Crusaders too many easy pick-and-goes before George Whitelock crashed over.
A Dan Carter penalty had the home team up by 10-nil but then the Highlanders got themselves into the game with a couple of Chris Noakes penalties before Tamati Ellison upstaged Ryan Crotty to score and put his team into a 13-10 lead.
The Highlanders had managed to capitalise on Whitelock's sinbinning for a ruck infringement, with 10 unanswered points, but it was nothing like what the Crusaders were able to do when James Haskell replaced him soon after.
With Haskell off the park for a similar indiscretion, the Crusaders laid on three quality tries, two of them coming through Zac Guildford after clever kicks by Dan Carter.
Relegated to the role of spectators, the Highlanders could do nothing to stop the Crusaders juggernaut as Robbie Fruean broke free inside his own 22m and Andy Ellis sent Crotty away to make up for his earlier defensive lapse on Ellison.
The difference between the two teams was made plain just before halftime.
While the Crusaders had finished off almost every chance they created, as the Highlanders rushed onto attack with quick ruck ball in the shadow of halftime, Kurt Baker came up with a knock-on just as the home team's defence looked stretched.
The early loss of Corey Flynn to a rib injury turned into a positive for the Crusaders, with replacement hooker Quentin MacDonald turning on a blinder.
Midway through the first half it looked like the game was developing into a classic mainland derby, but it turned into a procession which was only interrupted by an 80m intercept try by Hosea Gear on the hour mark.
Completely outplayed from the half-hour mark on, it's difficult to pull any positives out of the Highlanders' performance.
Perhaps the steam has gone out of this team after an emotional ride through the 2012 campaign.
Maybe they just came up against a team which used its bye as a springboard towards another run at the title.
Crusaders 51 (George Whitelock, Zac Guildford 2, Ryan Crotty, Richie McCaw, Wyatt Crockett, Matt Todd tries; Dan Carter 5 con, 2 pen) beat Highlanders 18 (Tamati Ellison, Hosea Gear tries; Chris Noakes 2 pen, con). HT: 32-13

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