An injury to tighthead prop Oli Jager has taken the gloss off the Crusaders' last-minute 28-26 come-from-behind win against the Highlanders in their pre-season opener.
Jager was helped off the Temuka turf in the second half of the fixture on Friday evening, and was unable to put any weight on his left-foot after the match.
Crusaders coach Scott Robertson cringed when asked about the blow after the match, knowing full well Jager has had a bad run of injuries in recent years, and coming through pre-season matches unscathed is more important than the result.
The reigning champions lost loose forward Tom Sanders (fractured cheek) for 8-10 weeks during an inter-squad match a week ago, and are without centre Braydon Ennor (knee) and hooker Andrew Makalio (neck) for the entire Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign.
Robertson couldn't provide details immediately after the match, but it's fair to say Jager won't feature in next weekend's pre-season match against the Blues at Eden Park.
Jager's injury was Robertson's biggest gripe, although the fact his team barely fired a shot in the first half and trailed 26-0 at the split wasn't far off.
“I think that first 20 minutes we had about 12 penalties against us and every bounce of the ball, and everything we tried, wasn't coming off. I thought, 'shoot, what have we done in pre-season?'
“There was a lot of reflection, how come we've got this outcome?”
But his side, playing without their host of All Blacks, and David Havili and Bryn Hall, stormed back with four converted tries in the second half to win a thriller, one not sealed until Highlanders pivot Caleb Makene fluffed a 40m penalty with time up.
Crusaders flanker Sione Havili crashed over a minute earlier, before Brett Cameron slotted a clutch conversion to put the home side up.
“[Brett Cameron] has worked hard and that's a reflection of it,” Robertson said of his confidence-boosting performance.
Havili's try resulted in the first glimpse of the new captain's challenge rule, when Highlanders skipper Michael Collins asked for it to be checked.
It didn't take long for the new goal-line drop out rule to feature, either, with Highlanders first five-eighth Mitch Hunt pinning the Crusaders with a perfectly weighted kick early in the first half.
It led to hooker Liam Coltman scoring the first of his two tries. Wings Jona Nareki and Ngane Punivai scored the Highlanders' others in an impressive first half.
“You've got to give it to the Highlanders. They played with a great tempo, and were incredible for 40 minutes. Then it swung on its head, didn't it?” Robertson said.
Wider training squad member Timoci Tavatavanawai scored a brace for the hosts, including one beaut from a sharp set-piece move, while rookie prop Fletcher Newell scored on the back of a rampant run by 140kg prop Tamaiti Williams.
Unsurprisingly, Highlanders coach Tony Brown praised his team's first half performance, particularly that of halfback Folau Fakatava, who setup Nareki's try with a chip kick, but rued his team's inability to win lineout ball in the second half.
haven't played a lot of Super Rugby, they're Mitre 10 Cup players, they will learn a lot from it.
“It sort of highlights where we probably lack a bit of depth.”
Highlanders locks Josh Dickson (head knock) and Bryn Evans (ribs) were the only injury concerns for the visitors, but neither are expected to be sidelined for long.
Both teams will have their All Blacks back next week, when they're allowed to play 40 minutes.
Robertson expects to give most of his representatives a run, saying they're all eager for minutes before their season opener against the Highlanders in Dunedin in a fortnight.
Crusaders 28 (Timoci Tavatavanawai 2, Fletcher Newell, Sione Havili tries; Brett Cameron 4 con) Highlanders 26 (Liam Coltman 2, Jona Nareki, Ngane Punivai tries; Mitch Hunt 3 con). HT: 0-26