Super Rugby: Highlanders Show Depth in Gutsy Win over Crusaders

Jeff Cheshire@@jeff_cheshireAnalyst IIApril 24, 2011

Tony Brown and Nasi Manu were both influential in the Highlanders 26-18 win over the Crusaders.
Tony Brown and Nasi Manu were both influential in the Highlanders 26-18 win over the Crusaders.Martin Hunter/Getty Images

The Highlanders put on a classic display of guts and determination to topple the high-flying Crusaders in Nelson by 26-18.

Injuries forced the southern men to make no less than seven pre-game changes which saw few give them any chance of beating the competitions form team. Past Highlanders teams definitely would have faltered under the relentless pressure of the Crusaders.

But this team didn't. New coach Jamie Joseph has instilled a new attitude into the Highlanders and they are finally showing some of the form that they showed in the early years of Super Rugby where they were one of the competition's top teams.

The fact that they were able to make seven changes to the side that dismantled the Rebels last week is testament to just how far this Highlanders team has come. And it's not as though these were small changes either. Jimmy Cowan, Colin Slade, Adam Thomson, Kade Poki, Jason Rutledge, Alando Soakai and Sean Treeby have all been stand outs this year and most other teams would struggle after losing so many players of this calibre.

But such is the rediscovered spirit in the Highlanders that it didn't faze them, taking the field against the top team in the competition and proving to be every bit as good as them.

The game was won up front as the Highlanders tight five got the better of their opposition, constantly disrupting their ball. This allowed their loose forwards to roam and be more effective at the breakdown, where they also outplayed their opponents.

Jarrad Hoeata was outstanding, playing the hard man role that the Highlanders have lacked in recent years, putting in some big hits on defence. Nasi Manu provided good go forward with ball in hand, while also getting through plenty of work.

Their backs were equally good. Aaron Smith proved to be a live wire at halfback, while Tony Brown looked every bit as good as he did in his heyday ten years ago with his experience and kicking game proving to be valuable.

Ben Smith and Kendrick Lynn were solid in the midfield, ensuring that neither Sonny Bill Williams or Robbie Fruean ever got room to run, limiting the opportunities of the Crusaders dangerous outside backs.

Out wide they looked dangerous as Siale Piutau carried on his good form, while Robbie Robinson and James Patterson both had their best games in Highlanders jerseys.

But it was as a team that the game was won. And that's what the Highlanders truly are, a team. They showed true guts and determination in the second half, having to scramble many a time on defence. And they didn't crack. There was simply no way through for a Crusaders side who just kept trying and trying to no avail.

A similar approach will be needed by the southern men as they head home to take on the Blues in what will be a crucial game for both teams. Don't be surprised to see another different looking Highlanders team as many players put their hands up last night, which may see them keep their place from those returning next week. If last night was anything to go by, they could put any combination of players out there and be just as good.

And that just sums them up. They are playing with the same attitude that they have traditionally played with, meaning that every man is important as each other. After seven wins from nine games, it is safe to say that the Highlanders are well and truly back.