Eight straight wins and still stuck in fourth – life sure is tough in the New Zealand conference.
The Highlanders must feel slightly aggrieved when they look at those standings but there was no aggravation tonight in Perth, scoring eight tries to none to swat aside the Force with ease.
Victory pulled Tony Brown’s team to within two points of the Hurricanes and Chiefs but, having played a game more and with a trip to the table-topping Crusaders still to come, fourth place might be as good as it gets.
That will still see them in the playoffs where they will still be seen as a genuine threat, especially performing the way they did tonight. The inclement weather might have initially made difficult any attempts at expansive play but the Highlanders soon found the conditions very much to their liking.
In the first half, they excelled with direct attack, pouncing on errors from their opponents and quickly making them pay. In the second, they began to sparkle, threatening from all parts of the field.
It was certainly too much for the Force, who initially achieved parity but eventually had their limitations exposed. The hosts never applied any real pressure to their opponents, being hampered in that quest by picking up a couple of yellow cards, and had no trouble creating pressure on themselves.
Throughout the match the Force were guilty of making costly mistakes in key positions, an issue encapsulated by the gift Aki Seiuli received right before the break.
The prop’s intercept try put the Highlanders in control at halftime and, given they appeared the only side capable of constructing moments of quality, their 11-point lead seemed more comfortable than that number might have indicated.
The impressive Tevita Li was responsible for a couple of those moments, scoring his side’s first and setting up another, and on the opposite wing Patrick Osborne produced the pick of the match while scoring a solo try early in the second spell that essentially decided the contest.
There was still time for Lima Sopoaga to return from a two-month injury layoff and still time for Rob Thompson to score a double off the bench, adding further embarrassment to the Australian sides’ 0-18 record against their Kiwi counterparts.
FORCE – 06
Penalties: Ian Prior (24,28)
HIGHLANDERS – 55
Tries: Tevita Li (18),Aki Seiuli (35,50),Patrick Osborne (43),Rob Thompson (58,80), Dillon Hunt (63), Richard Buckman (66)
Penalties: Marty Banks (13)
Cons: Marty Banks (20,36,44,51,59,64)
Force: 15 Luke Morahan, 14 Semisi Masirewa, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Bill Meakes (c), 11 Alex Newsome, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Ian Prior, 8 Richard Hardwick, 7 Brynard Stander, 6 Ross Haylett-Petty, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Richie Arnold, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Pek Cowan
Replacements: 16 Anaru Rangi, 17 Francois van Wyk, 18 Tetera Faulkner, 19 Matt Philip, 20 Lewis Carmichael, 21 Isireli Naisarani, 22 Michael Ruru, 23 James Verity-Amm
Highlanders: 15 Matt Faddes, 14 Patrick Osborne, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Elliot Dixon (c), 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Guy Millar, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Jackson Hemopo, 21 Aaron Smith, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Rob Thompson
Date: Saturday, May 20
Venue: nib Stadium, Perth
Referee: Shuhei Kubo
Assistant Referees: Ed Martin, Damon Murphy
TMO: Ian Smith