The Crusaders have held on through a scoreless second half and with 14 men for the last three minutes to beat the Highlanders 17-14 in Super Rugby Pacific.

Both teams scored two tries in a first half of tit-for-tat scoring and a penalty by All Blacks first five-eighth Richie Mo'unga in the 26th minute proved unexpectedly decisive in Christchurch on Friday night.

The winless Highlanders spent much of the second half and almost all of the final quarter on attack.

But they were unable to break down the resolute Crusaders' defence which refused to yield even when replacement hooker Shilo Klein was shown a red card in 77th minute for a shoulder charge which struck the head of Highlanders prop Ethan de Groot.

The Crusaders showed a remarkable ability to hold out under concerted pressure and to win crucial turnovers at the tackled ball through players such as flanker Ethan Blackadder and winger Sevu Reece.

"It was a heck of a battle," Crusaders captain Scott Barrett said. "The conditions forced both teams into playing that pressure game and it was a real see-saw right to the final whistle."

The first half had all the action the second half lacked. The Highlanders twice were in front and on both occasions the Crusaders were able to reply.

Highlanders hooker Andrew Makalio scored the first converted try of the match in the seventh minute from a clever lineout move worked with backrower Shannon Frizell.

The Crusaders replied in the 13th with a try to prop Fletcher Newell, created by centre David Havili who recovered his own kick on attack and quickly moved the ball to Mitchell Drummond, who fed Newell at pace.

The Highlanders again went ahead in the 19th minute with a try to centre Scott Gregory, also converted by Mitch Hunt. 

Again the Crusaders responded, this time through a powerful run by centre Leicester Fainga'anuku.

In the meantime Mo'unga kicked the penalty that proved the difference between the teams.

"I was really proud of our effort," Highlanders captain Aaron Smith said. "We were able to stay in the game for 80 minutes and put the best team in the competition under a lot of pressure."

The Highlanders remain without a win after six matches while the Crusaders have five wins from six games.

Crusaders 17 (Tries: Newell, Fainga’anuku, Cons: Mo’unga 2, Pen: Mo’unga) Highlanders 14 (Tries: Makalio, Gregory, Cons: Hunt 2) HT: 17-14

CRUSADERS (1-15): Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Fletcher Newell, Scott Barrett (c), Quinten Strange, Ethan Blackadder, Tom Christie, Cullen Grace, Mitch Drummond, Richie Mo'unga, George Bridge, David Havili, Leichester Fainga'anuku, Sevu Reece, Will Jordan

RESERVES: Shilo Klein, George Bower, Tamaiti Williams, Zach Gallagher, Pablo Matera, Bryn Hall, Fergus Burke, Braydon Ennor

HIGHLANDERS (1-15): Daniel Lienert-Brown, Andrew Makailo, Josh Hohneck, Byrn Evans, Josh Dickson, Shannon Frizell, Sean Withy, Marino Miakele Tu’u, Aaron Smith (c), Mitch Hunt, Mosese Dawai, Scott Gregory, Fetuli Paea, Sam Gilbert, Connor Garden Bachop

RESERVES: Rhys Marshall, Ethan de Groot, Saula Ma’u, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Gareth Evans, Folau Fakatava, Marty Banks, Denny Solomona

Referee: Paul Williams

Assistant Referees: Angus Mabey, Mike Winter