Forwards lead Crusaders to an easy victory
All the stars aligned for the Crusaders tonight as they scored four tries to grab a rare bonus-point victory to overwhelm the Highlanders 34-8 in Christchurch.
While the Crusaders must wait to see if the Sharks can overtake their second-place on the Super Rugby log - they will need to thump the Stormers in Cape Town tomorrow morning - the Highlanders have been forced to prepare for a sudden-death play-off match next weekend.
Just where that game will be played will be decided by the Sharks-Stormers result. If the Crusaders finish second they will earn a bye before hosting a semifinal the following weekend.
Unlike last the previous round, when they used bullocking wing Nemani Nadolo to set-up their win over the Blues, the Crusaders used the might of their lineout drive to snare maximum competition points.
Three tries, two to flanker Matt Todd and the other to replacement hooker Corey Flynn, were recorded from the set-piece drives while Nadolo grabbed the other in open play.
Even if the Highlanders had been able to field talismanic fullback Ben Smith, who didn't play because of a nasty leg infection, it is unlikely he would have been able to reverse their fortunes.
Getting precious momentum proved a difficult task for the Highlanders much of the evening - one bright spot was the try to livewire wing Richard Buckman in the second spell - and South African referee Craig Joubert wasn't unafraid to cane them with penalties for ruck transgressions.
By the 45th minute, when Todd had snaffled his second try to push his side out to a 22-3 lead, it was obvious the Highlanders were in deep strife.
From there little went right and even though wing Patrick Osborne and centre Malakai Fekitoa tried to inject themselves into the attack the opportunities repeatedly dried-up.
So confident were the Crusaders that the game was safe that coach Todd Blackadder hooked No 8 Kieran Read, halfback Andy Ellis and his entire front row before the clock ticked past the 55-minute mark.
The Highlanders must have had the hopeless feeling of sliding down an icy scree slope as it became apparent their hopes of winning the New Zealand conference, and securing a home berth in the quarterfinals, quickly slipped away.
Dan Carter might have missed four kicks, including a sitter of a penalty, but that was where his charity largely stopped: his four penalties gave the home side a comfortable buffer and then they went hunting for tries.
Watching the Highlanders scrums and lineouts get pulled apart have caused the hardy types watching the game back in heartland bastions such as Poolburn and Orepuki squirm with horror.
The southern men's lineout struggles began with Liam Coltman (who was replaced by Ged Robinson at halftime) struggling to hit his jumpers as the Crusaders used Read and Sam Whitelock to compete on his throws and then the scrum began to crumble.
One area where the Highlanders showed some fire was in defence; for 39 minutes the visitors repelled wave after wave of attack and it wasn't until Todd plunged over for his first try, just before the halftime hooter, that their line was finally breached.
Captain Read's decision to order Slade to nudge the ball into touch, instead of pointing to the sticks following a kickable penalty, led to Todd going over.
The Crusaders led 17-3 at the break and never looked like succumbing.
AS IT HAPPENED
Which 2015 NZ Super Rugby team looks best?