Sportal.co.nz 01.Jun.2012Getty Images
The Cantabrians know all about seismic shifts after their earthquake woes but this time they were dishing it out for their Super Rugby rivals while the likes of first five-eighths Dan Carter and flanker Richie McCaw let the Irish, who they'll be facing next week, that they are ready for business.
Carter was all class in getting his backline moving, his kicking choices creating two early tries and rocking the Highlanders from the outset. McCaw was all over the field in a game which was helter-skelter, resulting in some lucky breaks in the refereeing stakes, but he showed he too was back to his best after his foot injury.
Another name entered the lists of potential hookers for the future was Quentin MacDonald who had a magnificent game after coming on about three minutes into the game as a replacement for Corey Flynn who suffered a rib injury.
Halfback Andy Ellis, with the benefit of a rampant pack did enough to win the Test start by making some outstanding breaks while fullback Israel Dagg showed some of best mischievous touches and his wing mate Zac Guildford twice put his speed to good use for tries.
It was labelled as a traditional South Island derby so it should have surprised no-one that the Crusaders turned it on from the outset with wing Kurt Baker feeling the intent in a thumping cover tackle by captain and flanker Richie McCaw. And from that the Crusaders forwards unleashed drive after drive and it was flanker George Whitelock who crossed from a goal-line maul to open the scoring in the third minute.
The Crusaders then lost hooker Corey Flynn with rib injuries. Carter attempted a penalty goal from 50m in the eighth minute, albeit with a grimace, possibly a result of the aftermath of the groin tear suffered during last year's World Cup.
Highlanders first five-eighths Chris Noakes responded in the 11th minute with a penalty goal, a good reward for the first excursion into Crusaders territory. That was backed by another in the 16th minute when Whitelock was sin-binned for playing the ball on the ground.
More prospective trouble loomed in the 19th minute when No.8 Kieran Read took Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith in a tackle when he hadn't played the ball. From the penalty, and the following kick to touch saw the Highlanders call a two-man lineout and when the ball was moved it was centre Tamati Ellison who created the opening by brushing off second five-eighths Ryan Crotty's tackle attempt and then fending prop Ben Franks to propel himself over for the try which Noakes converted to give the Highlanders a 13-10 lead.
At the moment in which Whitelock was set to return, Highlanders flanker James Haskell infringed at a ruck and was sent on his way for Carter to land the penalty goal to level the score.
From the re-start the Crusaders brought the ball back up and it was Carter who slipped a grubber kick through which was taken by replacement hooker Quentin MacDonald who quickly fed the flying Zac Guildford who raced away to score as the home team took an 18-13 lead.
MacDonald was involved again in the 34th minute when launching a powerful drive into the Highlanders 22m area, slipped the ball to prop Wyatt Crockett and then from the ruck, Carter slipped another kick through and it was Guildford who touched down.
From the re-start the ball was moved immediately by the Crusaders. Centre Robbie Fruean punched a hole in the defence, and found halfback Andy Ellis running down the middle of the field, and then he passed outside where Crotty needed no second invitation on a 40m run to the line.
Five minutes were all the Crusaders needed to regain their momentum in the second half and it was a midfield breakout which provided space for fullback Israel Dagg, he in-passed to Ellis, who quickly slipped a kick through and it was McCaw who threw a big hand down on the ball. Crockett crossed for a sixth try while some opportunism off another Crusaders attack saw an Ellis pass intercepted by Hosea Gear who raced 80m untroubled to score.
A lineout five metres out in the 70th minute saw replacement flanker Matt Todd score the seventh with Carter's conversion bringing up the half-century
Crusaders 51 (George Whitelock, Zac Guildford 2, Ryan Crotty, Richie McCaw, Wyatt Crockett, Matt Todd tries; Dan Carter 5 con, 2 pen) Highlanders 18 (Tamati Ellison, Hosea Gear tries; Chris Noakes con, 2 pen). HT: 32-13