WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Mitch Hunt banged over a drop goal three minutes after the hooter to give the Canterbury Crusaders a 25-22 win over the Otago Highlanders to preserve their perfect Super Rugby record this season with a 14th successive win on Saturday.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen, however, was left counting the cost of a bruising Christchurch encounter when Crusaders centre Ryan Crotty suffered a rib injury that looks like keeping him out of the British and Irish Lions series.
Replacement flyhalf Hunt levelled the scores at 22-22 with four minutes remaining, missed another place-kick in the final minute before somehow willing a snap drop kick over from 45 metres to give his side a memorable victory.
The seven-times champions, seeking their first title since 2008, also had tries from scrumhalf Mitchell Drummond, winger Seta Tamanivalu and flanker Heiden Bedwell-Curtis as they snapped the Highlanders’ nine-match winning streak.
“Just one of those South Island games, both sides will be very, very sore tomorrow,” said Crusaders captain Sam Whitelock.
“Just so proud of the boys the way they held on all game, and little Mitchy stepped up at the end...”
All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo scored two opportunistic tries early in the second half for the Highlanders while Richard Buckman also crossed for the visitors.
The Crusaders won all 13 of their games in 2002, however that year they played just 11 regular season matches and the semi-final and final. They then won the first two games of the 2003 season.
On saturday, the Highlanders found themselves under immense pressure from the Crusaders from the outset.
Drummond and Tamanivalu both crossed in the first 14 minutes and while the Highlanders dominated first half territory and possession, the Crusaders defence and work at the breakdown released any pressure.
It was only when Bedwell-Curtis was sinbinned by referee Glen Jackson for a professional foul that the Crusaders line cracked with Buckman put over by a long pass from Marty Banks, who converted and added a penalty to cut the deficit to 19-10.
The Highlanders, however, finally capitalised on what opportunities they had in the second half.
Naholo first pounced on a spilled high kick inside the Crusaders 22-metre area just after halftime, then plucked an intercept and raced 75 metres four minutes later to give his side a 22-19 advantage, their first lead of the game.
The match then descended into an arm wrestle around the middle of the field and the Crusaders went through 19 phases before the ball was handed to Hunt.
Hansen, who names his All Blacks squad on Thursday, will also have been concerned that Highlanders fullback Ben Smith did not return to the pitch after a concussion check.
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Nick Mulvenney