The Highlanders continued their climb up the Super Rugby standings as they outclassed the Crusaders 34-26 at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday.
Victory for the champions moves them level with the Crusaders at the summit, thus bringing to an end their eight-game winning streak.
Outside centre Matt Faddes was outstanding for the Highlanders as he scored two tries, as did wing Waisake Naholo, with Liam Squire adding his team's fifth try. Lima Sopoaga kicked nine points via the kicking tee.
For the Crusaders they will be kicking themselves as a bright start didn't result in points, with their two tries coming from Jordan Taufua and Israel Dagg, with Richie Mo'unga slotting 16 points in a tough away defeat.
It was a frantic first period and the Crusaders would have been scratching their heads wondering how they weren't ahead. They thought they had crossed through Kieran Read and Luke Romano before the quarter but both were chalked off, for a knock-on and double movement respectively.
That meant it was 3-9 to the Crusaders after an impressive opening 20 minutes, with the Highlanders holding on for dear life on home soil.
But then came a turning point in the game as from a quick tap in a kickable position, the hosts recycled and Sopoaga found Naholo on the right wing for the game's first try. The conversion was missed, meaning the Crusaders were still in front 8-9 as the volume increased.
Mo'unga did give his side some breathing space in the 29th minute but it was shortlived as back came a rejuvenated Highlanders outfit. The impressive Faddes slipped a tackle 20 metres out before backing his pace for the corner, pushing the champions into a 13-12 lead.
The Highlanders weren't done before the break though and from another Faddes line bust, this time Sopoaga found Naholo by hand for 20-12.
Incredibly the Highlanders had the try bonus-point next to their name and then crucially added a fourth effort in the 51st minute, again Faddes being the star of the show when he cut through from 30 metres out. Sopoaga was this time on target as the buffer was now 15 points.
The Crusaders, top of the standings pre-game, have not won eight games in a row for no reason though and with Highlanders second-row Joe Wheeler in the sin-bin for a late hit, they scored through flanker Taufua to make it 27-19. He sensed this contest was far from finished.
Ten minutes later it most definitely was when a superb team try from the Highlanders resulted in replacement back-row Squire adding the gloss in an excellent performance that sends them into their bye week happy. In contrast the Crusaders will leave Dunedin shell-shocked despite Dagg crossing at the death.
Tries: Naholo 2, Faddes 2, Squire
Con: Sopoaga 3
Yellow card: Wheeler (55 mins – late hit)
Tries: Taufua, Dagg
Con: Mo'unga 2
Pen: Mo'unga 4
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Teihorangi Walden
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Kieron Fonotia, 12 David Havili, 11 Jone Macilai, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read(c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Mike Alaalatoa, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Tim Boys, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Ryan Crotty, 23 Marty McKenzie
Referee: Chris Pollock
Assistant Referees: Jamie Nutbrown, Kane McBride
TMO: Aaron Paterson