The table-topping Canterbury Crusaders plan to go into the Super 14 play-offs on a winning note was shattered yesterday when the the lowly Otago Highlanders pulled off an upset 26-14 win.
The fired-up Highlanders, who started the game in 11th place, scored three tries to one as they pulled off only their third win of the year by tackling the highly-vaunted Crusaders attacking play into submission.
The loss does not affect the Crusaders on the Super 14 ladder as they finish the regular season in a commanding first place and are guaranteed a home match in the semi-finals next weekend.
But there are questions emerging about their favoritism for the play-offs, with the Highlanders’ loss coming off the back of a desperate late win over the Queensland Reds.
“It wasn’t what we intended,” captain Richie McCaw said. “We thought we got a wake-up call last week, but this side put us under pressure and we made mistakes. Ideally, we didn’t want to be in this situation, but one positive is we’ve got next week to look forward to and we’re going to have to be a whole lot better if we’re going to be competitive.”
The Highlanders led 23-14 at halftime and scored the only points in the second half with a lone penalty to fullback Mike Delany as they repulsed repeated Crusaders’ attacks, forcing errors with an aggressive defense.
The Crusaders started off the stronger side and were up 5-0 after four minutes when Corey Flynn was driven over the line.
But it was to be a short-lived lead as a mis-directed cross kick from Dan Carter two minutes later led to a try by Paul Williams to equalize for the Highlanders.
The potent Highlanders loose trio of captain Craig Newby, Adam Thomson and Tim Boys more than matched their All Blacks opposites Richie McCaw, Reuben Thorne and Mose Tuiali’i.
They ensured a steady flow of possession for scrum-half Toby Morland and fly-half Daniel Bowden to force the Crusaders onto the back foot.
Delany and Carter traded a pair of penalties each to have the score tied at 11-11 before the Highlanders opened up with two quick tries.
Morland scored the first from a break by Daniel Bowden and then Thomson was driven. Delany landed one conversion and Carter kicked another penalty before the break.
The Highlanders had limited scoring chances in the second half, but managed to succeed with one Delany penalty, while the Crusaders mounted repeated attacks only to see them fail as they were pressured into errors.
With seven teams holding a last-match chance of making the semi-finals, the Crusaders will not know who their opponents will be until after the last match of the weekend.