The Crusaders began their Super 14 with a nervy 32-17 win over the Highlanders in Christchurch on Saturday, surviving a spirited comeback.
It had looked as though the Crusaders were cruising at 15-0 ahead when Jared Payne crashed over for his team's second try, but an inspired display from substitute Michael Hobbs, coupled with some out-of-kilter kicking from Dan Carter meant that they could not break clear and there was a nervy finale for the home fans to endure in their first match at the new-look AMI Stadium.
Zac Guildford's superb late try finally sealed the deal for the tournament favourites though, with Carter's conversion taking his team back two scores ahead and Sean Maitland's last-minute try flattering the Crusaders with a bonus point.
It was a patchy display though. The first half hour saw a red tide crashing on blue rocks as the Crusaders hit the ground running.Colins Slade, Thomas Waldrom and Zac Guildford all had early chances to score with a touch of ring-rustiness marring the finishes.
All the home team had to show for their early domination was a lone penalty from Carter, who had missed his first kick of the season after seven minutes but made no mistake after fifteen.
The ball retention from the home side was the key to their game though, by some distance the cleanest team at rucks we have seen in the opening four matches. The Highlanders, also playing into a stiff breeze, just couldn't get their hands on anything.
The pressure finally told on 20 minutes when Andy Ellis dived in off the side of a ruck for a try, although Jimmy Cowan's fierce protestations that he was being illegally held in a ruck were not entirely unfounded.
Things in general were not going the Highlanders' way. Matt Berquist missed a long-range pop at goal, seemingly by dint of a sudden gust of wind, while Adam Thomson was denied a try by a horrible error of judgement from the officials, who saw Slade's foot in touch before he had offloaded the intercept - replays showing that was palpably not the case.
A scoring pass to James Paterson was also loose as the visitors enjoyed a spell of pressure, but the scoreboard did not rotate again until half-time.
Payne enjoyed a moment of good fortune to give the Crusaders a 15-0 lead, with a low pass bouncing of his knee and rolling into the in-goal for the winger to pounce. Carter missed the conversion.
The spell of bad luck for the Highlanders was broken, ironically, with an injury to Matt Berquist. On came Hobbs and the visitors began to click. Within two minutes of Payne's try, Hobbs had burst through several tacklers to dot down his team's first, converting it for good measure.
Carter extended the lead with a penalty, but Josh Bekhuis' rumble again gave Hobbs the space to run hard, straight and fast for the line and score, and once again convert.
Carter's yips from the tee struck again, but Hobbs was suffering no such problem, closing the gap to a single point at 18-17 with a sweetly-struck wide penalty shortly after a cracking punch-up involving most players from both teams as the atmosphere thickened.
But the Crusaders had already been stung into action, with Fruean going close and Guildford restored the order with a scintillating try, sparked by himself in his own half and finished off with a searing turn of pace. Carter converted to make it 25-17.
A long-range Hobbs penalty just shaved the wrong side of the upright and kept the gap at eight, probbaly sealing the Highlanders' fate, but the Crusaders were not done and Sean Maitland rewarded the option of kicking a penalty to the corner in the last play of the game, by finishing off the fourth try.
Man of the match: Andy Ellis marshalled his rucks and options superbly.
For the Crusaders:
Tries: Ellis, Payne, Guildford, Maitland
Cons: Carter 3
Pens: Carter 2
Crusaders: 15 Colin Slade, 14 Jared Payne, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Thomas Waldrom, 7 George Whitelock, 6 Kieran Read (c), 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ti'i Paulo, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Peter Borlase, 18 Brad Thorn, 19 Jonathan Poff, 20 Kahn Fotuali'i, 21 Adam Whitelock, 22 Sean Maitland.
Highlanders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Jason Shoemark, 12 Jayden Hayward, 11 James Paterson, 10 Matt Berquist, 9 Jimmy Cowan (c), 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Clint Newland, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Jason Macdonald, 17 Chris King, 18 Hayden Triggs, 19 John Hardie, 20 Sean Romans, 21 Michael Hobbs, 22 Fetu'u Vainikolo.
Referee: Chris Pollock
Assistant referees: Vinny Munro (New Zealand), Josh Noonan (New Zealand)
TMO: Kane McBride (New Zealand)