The Highlanders had won one game heading into this fixture and were languishing at the bottom of the Super Rugby Aotearoa table.
Few people would have backed them to pull off a victory over Scott Robertson’s Crusaders. The Crusaders had not lost a game until now and were heavy favourites to win this encounter.
They were playing at home, and the Crusaders had won their last seven consecutive fixtures against the Highlanders. Overall, they have won 29 games, lost 11 and drawn one since 1996 against the Highlanders.
However, things started well for the Highlanders with five-eighth Mitch Hunt converting a penalty in the 12th minute to give the Highlanders a 3-0 lead. Hunt converted another penalty in the 19th minute to extend the lead to 6-0.
The Highlanders then took the lead into double digits with flanker Billy Harmon barging over the try line in the 24th minute. The play involved four passes and 12 phases. Mitch Hunt converted the try to take the lead to 13-0.
Six minutes before halftime, Hunt made the Crusaders pay for their ill discipline as he converted another penalty. The visitors led by 16-0.
The home side finally hit back through the hooker Codie Taylor, who scored in added time. Richie Mo’unga converted the try to have the Crusaders trailing the Highlanders by nine points at the break.
Another penalty gave the Highlanders a 19-7 lead in the 52nd minute. Then centre Michael Collins crossed the line and Mitch Hunt converted the try. Aaron Smith executed a smooth pass to Collins, who crashed over the line.
The Highlanders led by 26-7 at the 59th minute. A late David Havili try gave the Crusaders some hope. However, those hopes vanished in the 74th minute, when fullback Connor Garden-Bachop latched onto a loose ball and scored the third Highlanders try to seal the deal for the Highlanders.
Hunt converted the try to give the Highlanders a 33-12 victory over the table toppers. It was a major upset in the context of the tournament, which has opened up a bit.
Mitch Hunt was excellent for the visitors as he scored 18 points, had ten runs for 82 metres, beat six defenders, made three clean breaks, and made a tackle.
Flanker Billy Harmon had an excellent game, scoring a try, making nine carries for ten metres, beat three defenders, made four passes, made 13 tackles and won a turnover.
The Crusaders will rue the fact that they conceded 13 penalties and conceded 21 turnovers as opposed to the Highlanders’ 11.
The Highlanders play the Chiefs at home next Saturday, while the Crusaders travel to Wellington to play the Hurricanes next Sunday.