The Crusaders returned to their winning ways after securing a hard-fought 26-20 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday.
The Christchurch-based side were heavily criticised after a rusty showing in their opening round defeat to the Melbourne Rebels but in this game it was the Highlanders – who were playing their first match of the season after having a bye last weekend – who battled to get going, especially in the first half.
The opening period was a frantic affair with both sides running the ball from all areas of the field but a combination of poor finishing and solid defensive work from both sides meant that the first points – a Colin Slade penalty – was only scored in the 17th minute.
The Highlanders struck back shortly afterwards when Aaron Smith sold Richie McCaw a dummy on the Crusaders' five-metre line before scoring his side's first points.
Lima Sopoaga added the extras but the Crusaders had an opportunity to narrow the gap from the kicking tee, after Tom Franklin infringed at a ruck.
Slade's shot at goal struck an upright but the visitors did well to regather the loose ball and came close to scoring when Richie McCaw burrowed his way over the try-line. It wasn't to be, however, as his effort was ruled to be short of the try-line by the television match official.
The seven-time champions' frustration turned to joy soon afterwards when from the resulting scrum they set up a couple of phases before Scott Barrett crashed over for their first try which Slade converted.
Slade added another three-pointer in the 34th minute after the Highlanders infringed on defence and on the stroke of half-time Johnny McNicholl extended the visitors' lead when he burst through two tackles for his side's second five-pointer.
Slade slotted the conversion to give his side a 20-7 lead at the break and had a chance to extend his side's lead with another penalty shortly after the restart but, once again, his effort struck an upright.
He made up for that miss with another penalty in the 52nd minute to open the scoring in the second half but missed another shot at goal five minutes later.
The Highlanders struck back in the 62nd minute when Malakai Fekitoa crossed over in typical fashion after shrugging off a Ryan Crotty challenge deep inside the home side's 22.
Sopoaga added the conversion and eight minutes from the end he landed a penalt from about 45 metres out which set the stage for an exciting finish. The Crusaders responded better, however, and were soon on the attack midway between the hosts' 22 and the halfway line.
Their reward was another penalty from Slade in the 75th minute, after Josh Bekhuis infringed on the ground and the host secured a bonus point for losing by less than seven points when Sopoaga kicked another penalty in injury time after the Crusaders conceded a penalty deep inside their half.
Tries: A Smith, Fekitoa
Con: Sopoaga 2
Pen: Sopoaga 2
Tries: Barrett, McNicholl
Con: Slade 2
Pen: Slade 4
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Josh Hohneck.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Kane Hames, 18 Ma’afu Fia, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Jason Emery, 23 Marty Banks.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Robbie Fruean, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Johnny McNicholl, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Matt Todd (c), 6 Richie McCaw, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Dominic Bird, 20 Jordan Taufua, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Nafi Tuitavake.
Referee: Ben O'Keefe