The Highlanders strengthened their claim to a place in the playoffs in Super Rugby Pacific on Friday, scoring nine tries in a 61-10 win over the Perth-based Western Force.
The Highlanders’ third straight win of the season came with a bonus point which left them comfortably in eighth place. Eight teams advance to the playoffs when the regular season ends after two more rounds.
New Zealand appears likely to have five teams in the playoffs — the Blues, Crusaders, Chiefs, Hurricanes and Highlanders — along with the Brumbies, Reds and Waratahs from Australia.
The Highlanders made a lightning start, scoring two tries to lead 14-0 after only six minutes.
Backrower Marino Mikaele-Tu’u had a double by halftime when the Highlanders led 28-10.
Hooker Andrew Makalio scored his second try in the 43rd minute and replacement halfback Folau Fakatava scored two second-half tries as the Highlanders overran the Force by nine tries to two.
Flyhalf Sam Gilbert was successful with eight conversions and the Highlanders posted their highest-winning margin in Super Rugby.
The match descended into chaos in the second half when the Force dropped to 13 men.
Former All Blacks center Richard Kahui was shown a red card over a head clash with a Highlanders player while the Force already had a player in the sin-bin.
The Force were left without a hooker and the teams had to resort to uncontested scrums.
The final conversion of the match was taken by prop Daniel Lienert-Brown to commemorate his 100th Super Rugby game for the Highlanders.
“It was an outstanding result for us,” Highlanders captain Aaron Smith said.
“It’s great to be back at home and then to put a performance like that out there, something we’ve probably been searching for all year.”