Defending Super Rugby Aotearoa champions the Crusaders have stamped themselves as early favourites for a fifth consecutive title, dispatching the Highlanders 26-13 in their 2021 season-opener in Dunedin.
The Canterbury-based outfit wasted no time taking control of the contest, scoring tries through hooker Codie Taylor and halfback Bryn Hall for a 14-0 lead over the opening 20 minutes.
But momentum switched slightly, when flanker Ethan Blackadder was yellow-carded, after persistent offside violations from the Crusaders.
During his absence, Highlanders flanker Shannon Frizell opened his team's account and moments before halftime, Conor Garden-Bachop closed the margin to just four points, when he crossed in the corner.
Neither try was converted by Mitch Hunt, but he brought his side within a point with a penalty soon after the restart.
All Blacks winger Sevu Reece gave the Crusaders some breathing room from an attacking lineout, but trailling 19-13, the southerners still had plenty of chances to snatch the lead over the dying stages.
They seemed to have crossed for a possible go-ahead converted try to centre Sio Tomkinson, when Josh Ioane kicked behind the goal-line and Crusaders defenders could not gather the ball cleanly.
But referee Ben O'Keeffe went back three phases to review a suspected knock-on and eventually disallowed the try.
The Highlanders turned down seven opportunities to kick for goal off penalties, preferring to chase the five or seven-point option, but to no avail.
Instead, the Crusaders turned to their trusty set piece, with their forwards driving replacement hooker Brodie McAlister over for the game-clincher.
With two minutes remaining, O'Keeffe awarded the competition's first goal-line dropout - a new rule borrowed from rugby league - to the Highlanders.
With time up on the clock, Crusaders skipper Scott Barrett was sin-binned for taking out Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava without the ball.
Before kickoff, the Highlanders performed a rare Super Rugby haka to honour captain and hooker Ash Dixon for his 100th appearance in the competition, achieved in their final outing last season at an empty Forsyth Barr Stadium, due to COVID-19 lockdown.
Next Friday, the Highlanders visit the Chiefs, while the Crusaders host the Hurricanes on Saturday.
Crusaders 26 (Taylor, Hall, Reece & McAlister tries; Mo'unga 3 conversions) Highlanders 13 (Frizell & Garden-Bachop tries; Hunt penalty)
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