The Highlanders have celebrated their return home with a season-best performance that solidified their grasp on the eighth and final playoff place.
With an attacking effort that was spectacular in set up and clinical in conclusion, Tony Brown’s side swept aside the Western Force to record their largest margin of victory in Super Rugby history.
When they last played at Forsyth Barr Stadium, the Highlanders slumped to their seventh defeat in eight games, left languishing near the bottom of the Super Rugby standings.
They haven’t since climbed too far, but far enough. Three straight wins in the transtasman section of the competition means the Highlanders are now safely in quarter-final contention, and if they replicate tonight’s performance they will worry the top seeds come the playoffs.
The Highlanders blew away the Force in the first 15 minutes and rarely paused to let their opposition catch their breath.
Sam Gilbert, wearing the No 10 jersey for the first time since high school, turned in an impressive display, carrying well and sparking his side’s attack with both deceptive running and well-timed offloads.
He also kicked all eight of his attempts at goal, with his teammates seemingly determined to give the 23-year-old extra practise from the tee.
No 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, in particular, just about threatened the tryline every time he had the ball, capping a barnstorming performance with two tries.
Hooker Andrew Makalio also bagged a brace and made some bruising hits in defence, as the Force struggled to puncture their opponents despite having a decent share of possession.
The 10th-placed visitors were error-prone and ill-disciplined, with Richard Kahui’s return to New Zealand ending in unfortunate fashion, subbed on and sent off late for a high shot on Mitch Hunt.
The game was well gone by that point. In fact, it was just about gone after the first 15 minutes, with an unstoppable opening salvo from the Highlanders lifting them to a 21-5 lead that felt a lot larger.
A decoy maul started the damage as Makalio drove across the line in the second minute, and moments after the kickoff the hosts were back down the right end, winning a turnover and recycling well for Mikaele-Tu’u’ to score his first.
The Force did manage to hit back through Jeremy Thrush, but that was a brief blip for the Highlanders as Scott Gregory finished off a stunning run from Thomas Umaga-Jensen.
Mikaele-Tu’u soon had his second from the base of a scrum and, given it took the Force until the 25th minute to make their second visit to the opposition 22, the game long looked over as a contest.
The Highlanders didn’t quite have it entirely their own way in the first half. Josh Dickson was sin-binned for a high shot and Andrew Ready crossed for the Force to make it 28-10 at the break.
But the hosts were even more prolific in the second spell, even if their attack wasn’t quite so sparkling.
Makalio’s second just after the break ensured there would be no shock reversal, and the rest of the half turned quickly into a procession as the benches were emptied and continuity was lost.
Substitute halfback Folau Fakatava took another step in his emergence with a double while Rhys Marshall and Billy Harmon also crossed, completing a destructive display and sending out a warning ahead of the quarter-finals.
Highlanders 61 (Andrew Makalio 2, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u 2, Scott Gregory, Rhys Marshall, Folau Fakatava 2, Billy Harmon tries; Sam Gilbert 8 cons)
Force 10 (Jeremy Thrush, Andrew Ready tries)
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