Highlanders thrash Western Force in Perth to win eighth straight match
Highlanders coach Tony Brown called it one of his team's best performances of the season - Force captain Bill Meakes called it embarrassing.
No matter which way you look at it, the Highlanders' 55-6 win against the Force in Perth on Saturday night extended the Dunedin-based franchise's record winning streak to eight.
At this rate, they won't be cruising under the radar in the ultra-competitive New Zealand conference much longer.
Especially after recording franchise records for biggest win (49 points), most points in a match in Australia (55) and continuing to build an almighty head of steam two weeks out from a date with the table-topping Crusaders in Christchurch.
"After the dust settles after a performance, it's always good to look at those records," Brown said.
"Obviously we've got eight in a row now, we've broken our highest winning margin again. The team is starting to build real momentum and create real confidence from that."
Mention the Force and Highlanders fans immediately think "bogey team" due to the fact they'd only won four of the 10 previous matches between the teams.
Playing for the first time since pinging his hamstring against the Blues in round three, Sopoaga was injected into the match in the 56th minute.
His first touch - a cross-field kick to wing Tevita Li - almost resulted in a try, while he otherwise soaked up playing a part in his team's biggest ever (49 points) win in competition history.
Led by No 8 and captain Elliot Dixon, the Highlanders outscored the Force eight tries to none to finish their three-week road trip in style.
Prop Aki Seiulu, who was promoted to the starting line-up when Daniel Lienert-Brown (stomach bug) was scratched, bagged his first career Super Rugby double.
The former Timaru Boys' High School captain did his best Beauden Barrett impersonation to score his first, when he picked off a sloppy pass from midfielder Meakes and scampered 10m to score.
It gave his side a comfortable 17-6 lead at the break, before he touched down again 10 minutes after play resumed with a strong carry from close-range.
Li, starting in place of the suspended Waisake Naholo, scored a try in what Brown called an "outstanding" performance, while fellow wing Patrick Osborne scored a scintillating 65m try early in the second spell.
It only got uglier from there, as the Force put in a performance that will hardly encourage the decision makers to spare them from the impending Super Rugby cull.
Not even heavy rain could stop the Highlanders running rampant, as replacement Rob Thompson, flanker Dillon Hunt and midfielder Richard Buckman - via another Meakes intercept - added their name to the scoresheet.
Yellow cards to Force wing Semisi Masirewa (deliberate knock-down) and lock Richie Arnold (shoulder charge) only helped the Highlanders turn the game into a training run.
"It was probably one of our best performances throughout the year," Brown said.
"Just really clinical for most of the game . . . the amount of pressure we were able to put on the Force created a lot of opportunities and put them under the pump. In that second half we just executed really well."
The bonus-point win ensured New Zealand teams remain undefeated against their Australian foes this season, while also pulling the fourth-placed (NZ conf) Highlanders to within two competition points of the Chiefs (43) and Hurricanes (43).
It might pay to circle June 3 in the diary.
The Highlanders, who play the Waratahs at home next weekend, and the unbeaten Crusaders (12-0), who face the Rebels in Melbourne next week, meet in Christchurch that afternoon.
There's a good chance an impressive winning streak will have to end.
Highlanders 55 (Tevita Li, Aki Seiulu 2, Patrick Osborne, Rob Thompson 2, Dillon Hunt, Richard Buckman tries; Marty Banks pen, 6 con) Force 6 (Ian Prior 2 pen) HT: 17-6