A standout performance by All Blacks hooker Codie Taylor has ensured the Crusaders have started the year just like they finished the last one – with a win against the Highlanders.
In front of a crowd of about 15,000 at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday, Taylor produced 67 minutes of high quality that was the foundation of his side's 26-13 victory.
With his head down, he was in the middle of a dominant Crusaders scrum. With his head up, he was a menace with ball in hand all night, scoring a brilliant first-half try from a 35-metre midfield break that showcased his pace and helped the Crusaders to a 14-10 halftime lead during a game in which they never trailed.
For the Highlanders, the performance was something of a mirror image of last year, with execution letting them down at key times.
Liam Squire was brought on for the last 20 minutes and immediately made his presence felt with and without the ball, but their scrum was under pressure for most of the night.
They were also denied a try after 65 minutes when the officials picked up a knock on by replacement halfback Folau Fakatava, but their inability to make the Crusaders pay when under pressure summed up their evening.
Sevu Reece, resplendent in fluoro boots so bright they could be seen by NASA's new Mars rover, was a liverwire for the Crusaders on the right wing, always making metres after contact with his combination of footwork and power.
Reece's sharp finish in the 47th minute to give the Crusaders a 19-13 lead was nothing less than he deserved as he crashed over from a clever offload from that man Taylor.
Since the Highlanders last won against the Crusaders, in 2017, only once have they managed to get within 10 points of the champions.
The scorelines might have masked the closeness of some of those fixtures, but the Crusaders have always had an extra gear to kick away from their southern rivals.
And so it proved again on Friday, with replacement hooker Brodie McAlister scoring from a lineout drive to seal the game at 26-13 with six minutes to go.
Scott Barrett copped a late yellow card for the Crusaders, but it was too little too late for the home side.
The visitors were hit by the late withdrawal of All Black Will Jordan, who picked up a rib injury last weekend, with rookie Chay Fihaki handed the No 15 jersey and former Highlander Josh McKay coming on to the bench. Yet, it barely fazed them.
The game started with a Highlanders haka led by Ash Dixon, a special moment that raised the temperature on a mild Dunedin evening.
There was plenty of feeling in the early exchanges, too, as new Highlanders lock Jack Regan and Crusaders prop Joe Moody squared up after a lineout drive.
With the 'Zoo’ stand packed with students at the end of O Week, the atmosphere under the roof Forsyth Barr Stadium was akin to a party.
However, the Crusaders fulfilled the gatecrasher role perfectly in the opening quarter as they played with a pace and width that seemed to surprise the Highlanders.
Some things never change, though. The Crusaders’ early superiority was built on the foundation of a dominant scrum that won two early penalties, and the champions then stunned the home side with slick back-to-back tries to Taylor and Bryn Hall after 14 and 16 minutes.
A yellow card to Ethan Blackadder for repeated Crusaders infringements then opened the door for the Highlanders, and Shannon Frizell crashed over in the left-hand corner after 26 minutes.
Ten minutes later new Highlanders No 14 Connor Garden-Bachop was over on the opposite side of the field after a terrific backline move with Tony Brown's stamp all over it.
However, Mitch Hunt couldn't convert either try from the wide angles and the Crusaders led 14-10 at the break.
Crusaders 26 (Codie Taylor, Bryn Hall, Sevu Reece, Brodie McAlister tries, Richie Mo'unga 3 cons) Highlanders 13 (Shannon Frizell, Connor Garden-Bachop tries, Mitch Hunt pen). HT: 14-10