Centre Matt Faddes has starred with two tries as the Highlanders snapped the Crusaders’ eight-match winning streak with a 34-26 victory in a compelling Super Rugby contest in Dunedin.
Wing Waisake Naholo also grabbed a brace – to make it four tries in his two matches since coming back from injury – as the Highlanders showed they won’t be giving up their title without a fight.
In a match of exhilarating thrust and counter, they scored five tries to two and the bonus point they secured means they join the Crusaders and the Chiefs on 37 points at the top of the New Zealand conference.
The Crusaders had gone into the latest round at the top of the overall competition table and made a dominant start before a sell-out crowd of more than 23,000 at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday night.
They starved the Highlanders of possession and territory in the opening 20 minutes and five-eighth Richie Mo’unga and props Wyatt Crockett and Owen Franks all made threatening breaks.
Twice the Crusaders were over the goalline but both times denied on review – No.8 Kieran Read for a knock-on after a desperate tackle by halfback Aaron Smith and then lock Luke Romano for a double movement.
The Highlanders, for whom No.8 Luke Whitelock and blindside flanker Elliot Dixon were standouts, had produced a sterling defensive effort but it looked a matter of time before they cracked.
However, having weathered the storm and at 9-3 down, they mounted a stunning comeback, scoring three tries in 15 minutes.
The first came after Smith opted for a quick tap from a kickable penalty position and five-eighth Lima Sopoaga’s pin-point crosskick found Naholo out wide.
Then it was Smith’s long pass from a lineout move that set up Faddes for a sprint to the line.
Next, a Faddes break began an attack that ended with an unmarked Naholo strolling over, and Sopoaga added the extras for a 20-12 half-time lead.
Faddes opened out the margin with yet another bust, sprinting 50 metres for his second try.
The Highlanders then had lock Joe Wheeler sinbinned for a late shoulder charge and the Crusaders were able to take advantage as flanker Jordan Taufua finally got their opening try.
But replacement loose forward Liam Squire finished off a superb team attack with 10 minutes to go, to shunt the momentum back the home side’s way.
The Crusaders did have the last say, fullback Israel Dagg touching down after the hooter.