CHRISTCHURCH - A sensational 45-metre Mitchell Hunt drop goal three minutes into injury time gave the Canterbury Crusaders a 25-22 win over the Otago Highlanders on Saturday in a Super Rugby clash that may have repercussions for the All Blacks.
It was the second heart-break finish for the Highlanders against the only unbeaten side in the competition after the Crusaders produced a stunning fightback to turn a 6-27 deficit into a 30-27 victory when they met in round two.
This time the Highlanders were up 22-19 with four minutes to go after a pair of Waisake Naholo tries early in the second half lifted them from a 19-10 deficit at the turn.
But in the fallout from the frenetic, physical battle, key All Blacks Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty were injured and unable to play out the game.
Three weeks out from the first Test against the British and Irish Lions, Highlanders fullback Ben Smith failed a concussion test and influential centre Ryan Crotty of Crusaders left the field with rib damage.
As they watched on from the sideline, the Highlanders looked to have laid their early season meltdown to rest until Crusaders replacement fly-half Hunt took the field.
With four minutes remaining he landed one penalty to tie the scores. When he missed a another shot the referee said there were only 10 seconds remaining.
Crusaders forwards fielded the restart and drove their way up field, making a metre at a time for nearly three minutes after the final hooter until Hunt banked over the match-winning drop goal.
Hunt said the tiring pack really gave him no choice.
"Wyatt Crockett turned around and said 'do something with it' and there's wasn't anything else I could do," he said, admitting he was surprised the kick went over.
"For a short player I can hardly punt it that far so I was pretty lucky with that kick."
It was the Crusaders' 14th consecutive victory, breaking the previous Super Rugby record of 13 set by the 2002 edition of the Crusaders.
The Highlanders, with their nine-match winning streak coming to an end, now almost certainly face a lengthy journey to South Africa.
The Crusaders started at a relentless pace, with the first try on the board after three minutes by Mitchell Drummond before Crotty put Seta Tamanivalu away for the second for a 12-0 lead after 15 minutes.
But when Crusaders flanker Heiden Bedwell Curtis was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate foul, the Highlanders bounced back with a try to Richard Buckman and a conversion and penalty by Marty Banks while they had a one-man advantage.
Bedwell-Curtis marked his return to the field with a try for the Crusaders to hold a 19-10 at half-time.
The game turned in the space of five minutes after the resumption with Naholo's double and the game became an arm wrestle until Hunt's heroics at the close.