But it was the home side who got the Forsyth Barr Stadium crowd roaring before the game even kicked off, debuting their new haka ‘Hautoa Kia Toa’, led by the team’s co-captain and newest centurion Ash Dixon (who actually played his 100th game last season against the Hurricanes but in front of a closed stadium). Dixon would have been licking his lips at the amount of possession his side enjoyed in the first half and was hunting a trademark lineout drive try, but the Crusaders’ defence in the first half an hour was absolutely relentless.
With their first opportunity, the Crusaders put points on the board through a lovely offload from Samuel Whitelock that sent Taylor flying through a fractured defence to run 45 metres to score next to the posts. Reece then brought a tear to the eye of older fans, putting in a perfect old-fashioned centering kick for Bryn Hall to pick up and score next to the posts. Richie Mo’unga converted both and it looked like it might get ugly for the home side, but they fought back admirably to pin the Crusaders in their 22.
They were helped by a yellow card to Ethan Blackadder, binned for team infringements after 25 minutes. Some quick thinking by Aaron Smith saw Shannon Frizell score in the corner, then Connor Garden-Bachop gunned it in off a sweeping move from a lineout on halfway. Mitch Hunt couldn’t add the extras and the score was 14-10 at the break.
The game had been played at a furious pace, so the talk in the changing rooms was clearly to try and settle down a bit. This suited the Crusaders as they were enjoying dominance at set piece, smashing the Highlanders’ scrum on a few occasions and relying on Mo’unga’s boot to guide them around the park. Liam Squire made his long-awaited Highlanders return and had a few punishing runs, but couldn’t make the impact needed to change the game.
The clincher came in the 71st minute, when replacement hooker Brodie McAlister was driven over from a lineout to make the score 26-13. Although it was an entertaining start to the competition, there will no doubt be plenty both teams will want to fix for next weekend – most notably the Crusaders’ discipline, Scott Barrett picking up another yellow just before the end.
Crusaders 26 (Codie Taylor, Bryn Hall, Sevu Reec, Brodie McAlister tries, Richie Mo’unga 3 con)
Highlanders 13 (Shannon Frizell, Connor Garden-Bachop tries, Mitch Hunt pen)
HT: 14-10 Crusaders