The Crusaders thrashed the Highlanders 20-40 in a fierce Super Rugby Aotearoa southern derby at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin.
A see-sawing encounter saw the Saders pull away late in the second half as the Landers tired.
The Crusaders outscored their hosts five tries to two as they overturned a six-point deficit to win comfortably.
The superb Will Jordan and returning Tom Christie both grabbed a brace apiece and Richie Mo’unga kicked 15 points as the visitors landed two late body blows to claim all five points.
The Christchurch side goes top of Super Rugby Aotearoa with three wins from three, overtaking the undefeated Blues thanks to bonus-points.
Sevu Reece also crossed for the visitors, while Shannon Frizell and Ngane Punivai dotted down for the hosts.
The hard-fought victory is the Crusaders‘ eighth in nine versus the Highlanders and 12th win in 13 Super Rugby matches for the 10 times winners.
The visitors also posted their fifth forty-burger on the bounce against the lowly Highlanders.
It had been 840 days since the Crusaders last played in Dunedin and precisely five years ago, to the day, since the Highlanders won Super Rugby in 2015.
By the end, that glorious day seemed a long time ago.
The Highlanders took a slender three-point lead into the break thanks to tries from Frizell and Punivai.
Jordan’s try and Richie Mo’unga’s boot kept the Crusaders in the hunt.
Despite having the better scoring opportunities and most of the early territory and possession, the defending champions could not find their way over the chalk.
However, the visitors’ relentless pressure after the break saw them cross twice as the hosts tired.
Hunt kicked a 55th-minute penalty, but as we all know, threes do not cut it against the Crusaders.
Despite Mo’unga’s wayward kicking, the Crusaders finished off the Otago men when Christie scored his second before Jordan grabbed his brace in the last minute.
It was classic Crusaders.
All action first half as the Highlanders as teams trade blows in a fast-paced encounter.
A near 25,000 energetic crowd turned up for the first southern derby in Dunedin between the two teams in two years.
Aaron Mauger’s men struggled with the penalty count in the first stanza conceding nine of the first-half’s 11 penalties.
The Highlanders scrum struggled, especially Daniel Lienert-Brown, who hurt his back early in proceedings as the Crusaders forwards turned the screw.
Mo’unga opened the scoring in the 10th-minute after Dillon Hunt jumped offside during an 11-phase Crusaders attack.
Five minutes later, the Crusaders won back possession and attacked the goal-line with a nine-phase barrage.
They recycled quickly throughout before sending the ball wide through the hands to Jordan, who dived over in the corner for Super Rugby another try.
Despite not having much territory or possession in the first quarter, the Highlanders found some rhythm, scoring two tries through Frizell and Punivai as they fought back to lead 14-8 on 26 minutes.
The first try came after the hosts went through their first sustained period of attack, stringing 13 phases before Frizell crashed over thanks to the support of several team-mates helping him over the line.
The TMO confirmed the on-field call by referee Mike Fraser. Hunt knocked over the easy conversion.
The game had opened up and was end-to-end as the intensity increased. It did not take long for the hosts to strike again.
Aaron Smith brokes into the Saders’ 22 after a scrappy lineout by the visitors. Smith waited for support, found it in Sio Tompkinson.
The ball was then sent quickly out to the wing via Rob Thompson and Punivai dotted in the corner. Hunt landed the wide conversion.
The Crusaders had another double-digit phase attack before winning a penalty. Mauger’s men struggled with the penalty-count, conceding nine to three in the half.
Mo’unga knocked over two more penalty-goals in quick succession to level with a few minutes remaining in the half; however, Hunt landed a penalty of his own on the stroke of halftime to edge the Landers ahead.
Relentless Crusaders strike after the break as the visitors put the squeeze on their hosts.
The Crusaders were getting smothered by the press defence and reverted to little kicks behind the Highlanders.
The three-time defending champs kept coming, wave after wave of attacks, but the home team repelled them.
They had more than 70% possession after the interval, which sucked the life out of the opposition.
A lung-sapping 16-phase attack ended when Liam Coltman won a timely turnover before Joe moody gave away a penalty, to the relief of Highlanders.
Scott Robertson’s men kept coming, like waves crashing on the shore, his side put together the phases and ran the Highlanders ragged.
The dam wall eventually burst when Christie crashed over 10 minutes after the break.
Another relentless attack ends with Christie driving his way through two defenders to finish off another sustained attack.
The Highlanders were lucky as they would have conceded a penalty try and a yellow card for foul play in the build-up by Pari Pari Parkinson who held back Braydon Ennor.
Mo’unga slotted the touchline conversion to make it 17-21.
A 17-phase Highlanders’ attack ended with three points; however, Jona Nareki cost his team a certain try by not passing out wide with an overlap; instead, he was hit with ball-in-hand and lost possession.
Hunt nailed another goal to make it a one-point ball game with 25 to play.
The Crusaders do what they do best, suffocating the opposition before scoring.
Reece’s expert finish in the corner opened up a six-point lead.
The powerful finisher got his body in the air, and Michael Collins could not knock him into touch as he dotted down in the corner on the hour mark.
Mo’unga had a chance to extend the lead to two scores with a 75th-minute penalty and kill the game, but, in an off night from the tee, the first five pulled his kick, keeping the Highlanders alive.
Christie and Jordan’s late quickfire double whammy broke the Highlanders’ resistance and hearts.
Final Score: Highlanders 20 (17) Crusaders 40 (14)
Tries – Frizell, Punivai
Pen – Hunt (2)
Con – Hunt (2)
Tries – Jordan (2), Christie (2), Reece
Pen – Mo’unga (3)
Con – Mo’unga (3)
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant Ref 1: Brendon Pickerill
Assistant Ref 2: Paul Williams
TMO: Chris Hart
15 Michael Collins, 14 Ngane Punivai, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Sio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith (co-captain), 8 Marino Mikaele Tu’u, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Josh Dickson, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Jeff Thwaites, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 17 Ayden Johnstone, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Jack Whetton, 20 Teariki Ben-Nicholas, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Vilimoni Koroi.
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Will Jordan, 13 Braydon Ennor, 12 Jack Goodhue, 11 Leicester Fainga’anuku, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Whetukamokamo Douglas, 7 Tom Christie, 6 Sione Havili, 5 Mitchell Dunshea, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Michael Alaalatoa, 2 Codie Taylor (captain), 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Makalio, 17 George Bower, 18 Oliver Jager, 19 Quinten Strange, 20 Tom Sanders, 21 Ere Enari, 22 Fetuli Paea, 23 Sevu Reece.