Mitchell Hunt’s last-gasp drop-goal gave the Crusaders a 25-22 win over the Highlanders at AMI Stadium in Christchurch.
The Crusaders kept up their unbeaten run in this year’s Super Rugby competition, making the Highlanders their fourteenth victim, and in dramatic fashion too.
The Highlanders fought back from 12-0 and 19-10 before taking their only lead of the match in the 52nd minute, and they kept their opponants scoreless before the dramatic finale.
But, with three minutes remaining, substitute Hunt, held his nerve, kicking a penalty and drop-kick, to keep the seven-times champions unbeaten.
The 21-year-old had also kicked a 76th-minute penalty to tie the game at 22-all after Waisake Naholo’s early second-half double gave the Otago team a three-point lead, but he missed a long-range kick, 90 seconds later.
The miss would provide one of the best finishes to a Super Rugby game since the Sharks and the Bulls in 2007’s classic final.
The visitors dominated the second 40 minutes, that is until Hunt’s little cameo at the end.
Despite all the changes made to the Crusaders’ starting line-up, this was an intense Kiwi derby. The home team raced to a 12-0 lead inside 15 minutes, thanks to Mitchell Drummond and Seta Tamanivalu.
But, on 25 minutes, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis’ received a yellow card. The Highlanders used their extra man advantage well, scoring 10 points, with a try from Richard Buckman and the boot of Marty Banks.
Bedwell-Curtis returned to make it 19-10 at the break. The visitors came out flying in the second half, scoring two tries in quick succession from Naholo to give them a 19-22 lead, one they could not keep.
Mitchell Drummond scored from close range to give his team a 7-0 lead. The scrumhalf collected the ball at the base of a ruck, looked left, saw the large gap between Daniel Lienert-Brown and Malakai Fekitoa and dived in unchallenged.
Richie Mo’unga added the easy conversion. Ryan Crotty’s break from a lineout set up Tamanivalu’s 15th-minute try. The centre broke into the opposition’s 22, rode a tackle and offloaded to Drummond in support.
The scrummy sent the ball wide to Jack Goodhue, who threw a long pass to the open wing to score. The conversion was missed, but the home team had made a statement.
After Bed-well-Curtis’ sin-binning, the Highlanders roared back with 10 points in 11 minutes. From a scrum near the Saders’ 22, the visitors’ solid scrum, set the platform for Buckman’s try.
Aaron Smith passed to Marty Banks, who threw a slip-pass to the Ben Smith. The fullback joined the line at pace, drew David Havili and sent Buckman away.
Banks kicked a penalty after converting the wing’s try and it was 12-10 as half-time neared. Unfortunately, there was too much time left for the Crusaders to take advantage of some shoddy rucking by the Highlanders.
Aaron Smith let a Crusaders forward turn over possession and the Crusaders mounted a counter-attack at breakneck speed from inside their half.
The home side launched an attack down the touchline after some excellent passing by the tight forwards. Goodhue’s break was halted, but quick ball saw Drummond pass to a support runner before Bedwell-Curtis ran away unchallenged to score.
Mo’unga’s conversion opened up a nine-point lead as the teams headed to the shed.
The Highlanders struck early after the break. Aaron Smith gathered Crotty’s lost ball after the centre was stripped by Rob Thompson. passed to Fekitoa, who put in a lovely weighted kick, which George Bridge fumbled.
The scrumhalf passed to Fekitoa, who put in a lovely weighted kick, which George Bridge fumbled.
Naholo, following up, toed the ball forward and flopped on it as it crossed the goal-line. Banks missed the conversion, but the visitors had momentum.
Four minutes later, Naholo had his second. Codie Taylor, playing first receiver – and thinking he’s Dan Carter – threw a telegraphed, floated skip-pass which Naholo intercepted on his 22.
The winger ran 80 metres to tie the scores at 20-all. Banks’ conversion put his team ahead, early in the fourth quarter.
The game was tight as it entered the final minutes. Quick thinking by the Crusaders saw them charge down the field and win a penalty inside the Highlanders’ 22.
Hunt had replaced Mo’unga 19-minutes earlier and had a shot at levelling the scores after the home team was awarded a penalty. He made no mistake.
This set up the thrilling denouement. With 15 seconds left on the clock, Hunt’s second penalty attempt sailed wide. This should have been the end of the contest, but there was time for one more play.
Long after the hooter had sounded and the Crusaders had driven back into Highlanders territory.
They kept the ball for 19 phases, and with the clock reading 82:22, the standoff called for the ball.
Bryn Hall duly obliged. Hunt, standing deep in the pocket, left of the poles and 45 metres out, slotted one of the most outrageous drop-goals ever attempted.
By the time the ball had sneaked over the crossbar, the clock read 82:26: Cue bedlam.
Final score: Crusaders 25 (19) Highlanders 22 (10)
Tries – Drummond, Tamanivalu, Bedwell-Curtis
Pen – Hunt
Con – Mo’unga (2)
Drop – Hunt
Cards – Bedwell-Curtis (Yellow, 25th minute)
Tries – Buckman, Naholo (2)
Pen – Banks
Con – Banks (2)
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant Ref 1: James Doleman
Assistant Ref 2: Michael Winter
TMO: Glenn Newman
15 David Havili, 14 Seta Tamanivalu, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Jordan Taufua, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 5 Samuel Whitelock (captain), 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Jed Brown, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Mitchell Hunt, 23 Israel Dagg.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Richard Buckman, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Matt Faddes