Highlanders 13-26 Crusaders, Forsyth Barr Stadium
Crusaders started their Super Rugby Aotearoa title defence with a win as they defeated Crusaders 26-13 in the tournament opener at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
The defending champions took early control of the game with a 14-0 lead which was followed by a fightback from Highlanders as they clawed their way back reducing the arrears to just one point but the visitors ensured they seized the game with tries from Sevu Reece and Brodie McAlister in the second half.
It took Crusaders 12 minutes to open their account with Sam Whitelock passing the ball to Codie Taylor for the opening try and Richie Mo'unga followed with the conversion. The visitors doubled their tally in the 16th minute when Sevu Reece kick at the back of the line out found Bryn Hall as he went over the line and once again Mo'unga was spot on with the conversion.
Repeated infringements saw Crusaders reduced to 14-men temporarily with Ethan Blackadder sin-binned in the 23rd minute which allowed Highlanders to break the shackles as Aaron Smith sent a perfect pass to allow Shannon Frizell to cross the whitewash and Connor Garden-Bachop also dotted down in the 37th minute as the scoreline became 10-14 at the end of the opening half.
Mitch Hunt missed both the conversions in the opening half but kicked a penalty goal early in the second half making it 13-14.
Nevertheless, it was a matter of time before Crusaders extended their lead further when Highlanders conceded a penalty and the visitors recovered from a poor lineout to set up Sevu Reece with a diving finish making it 13-19. Mo'unga missed the extras and also missed a penalty kick which kept Highlanders in the game.
The decisive moment in the game came in the 73rd minute when a maul at the back of the line out allowing Brodie McAlister to score and this time the All Blacks fly-half improved sealing a 13-26 win for Crusaders despite Scott Barrett's yellow card in the final minute.
Highlanders: 15 Solomon Alaimalo, 14 Connor Garden-Bachop, 13 Ngatungane Punivai, 12 Patelesio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Jack Regan, 4 Josh Dickson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Reserves: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Josh Hohneck, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Bryn Evans, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Hugh Renton
Crusaders: 15 Will Jordan, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Dallas McLeod, 11 Leicester Fainga'anuku, 10 Richie Mo'unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Cullen Grace, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Ethan Blackadder, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Scott Barrett (captain), 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Reserves: 16 Brodie McAlister, 17 George Bower, 18 Fletcher Newell, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Sione Havili, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Fergus Burke, 23 Chay Fihaki