By Jake Beleski
You get the feeling this may not be the Highlanders’ year.
The talk all week in the lead-up to their second-round match with the Crusaders was that they wanted less ball than they had in round one against the Chiefs, with an emphasis on defence and a strong kicking game.
For 65 minutes on Saturday night it looked like that strategy was working perfectly as they raced to a 27-6 lead just after halftime, which included a double to dynamic All Black wing Waisake Naholo.
His second try was one for the highlight reel.
A perfectly-placed Lima Sopoaga chip kick fell into the waiting hands of centre Malakai Fekitoa, before his well-timed pass found Naholo with a clear run to the line.
But in the final quarter the Crusaders clicked into gear, timing their run to perfection.
Fekitoa endured a miserable match with his handling, and his night came to a premature end when he received a questionable yellow card with 10 minutes left, leaving his team defending with 14 men as the Crusaders moved in for the kill.
A try to fullback David Havili got them within two points of the Highlanders, and they eventually grabbed a 30-27 lead with two minutes left when Seta Tamanivalu crossed in the corner.
It was a bitter end for the shell-shocked Highlanders, leaving them as the only New Zealand side without a win in 2017.
The strict new laws regarding high tackles left their mark on the Blues contest with the Chiefs on Friday night, as the Blues were forced to play forty minutes with 14 men after flanker Steven Luatua was red-carded for a clumsy high tackle on Chiefs’ wing Tim Nanai-Williams.
Already trailing 15-9 when the incident occurred, the Blues were overrun in the second half before three late tries allowed them to close the gap to 41-26 at fulltime.
Luatua was suspended for four weeks following the match.
The Blues now face consecutive matches against the Highlanders and Crusaders, while the Chiefs prepare for a visit from the top-of-the-table Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes romped to an 11-try victory over the Rebels in the capital on Saturday, leaving them heading the New Zealand conference standings ahead of the Chiefs due to a superior points differential.
They will face their first true test this Friday against a Chiefs side that will be looking to reverse last year’s semi-final loss to the defending champions.
New Zealand conference 2nd round scores: Chiefs 41 Blues 26, Hurricanes 71 Rebels 6, Crusaders 30 Highlanders 27.