The Highlanders moved closer to another season of Super Rugby playoff action after overcoming stubborn basement dwellers the Western Force 23-3 in an error-strewn clash in Perth last night.
The free-flowing Highlanders have been one of the most entertaining sides this campaign but they had to show grit and steel to seal their ninth win of the season.
Perhaps weary after a two-game tour of South Africa and struggling with the narrow, physical approach of the Force, the Highlanders backline failed to click and opted to kick an uncharacteristic amount of ball.
Second half tries by loose forward John Hardie and halfback Aaron Smith blew out the scoreboard but a four-try bonus point win never looked likely.
The Highlanders are third in the overall standings on 43 points (though they sit fifth in the top six playoff places by virtue of being behind the table topping Hurricanes and second placed Chiefs in the NZ conference) with three matches remaining.
They host the Chiefs (44 points), a point ahead of them in the standings, next week in Invercargill but will have to improve against the twice champions.
The Hurricanes top the standings on 57 points and have a 13 point lead over the Chiefs with three rounds remaining before the playoffs.
A forgettable first half ended 6-3 to the visitors after two Lima Sopoaga penalties bettered one from Sias Ebersohn as both sides appeared to lose confidence as the turnovers rose.
The Highlanders eventually found a way to breach the Force line, openside flanker John Hardie crossing for a try in the corner after an 11-man rolling maul from a five-metre line-out bulldozed through the Australian defence.
Sopoaga converted to stretch the lead to 13-3 as the Highlanders wrestled control of the contest but struggled to turn large swaths of possession and territory into tries.
Sopoaga slotted a 71st minute drop goal to stretch the lead before Smith ended a broken play move by touching down for a late second try.
The Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph was proud of his team's effort on the way back from a tour of South Africa and ahead of their crucial clash with the Chiefs.
"It's a really good win for us and it was a really tough game. It was a really physical match and we respected the opposition, and I don't think the boys really understood how tough it was going to be until we got into the match," Joseph said.
"I guess when they had an opportunity to strike and put some pressure on us, we'd either steal a lineout or spoil it which for me was a big part of the winning of the game.
Last night the Hurricanes beat the Blues 29-5 in Auckland.
The win moved the Hurricanes to 57 competition points and virtually ensured they will qualify in top place, with only the Chiefs and Highlanders capable of surpassing them with three rounds remaining before the playoffs.
Also last night the Waratahs all but ended the Crusaders 13-year finals run with a 32-22 win in Sydney.'
This morning the Lions beat the Cheetahs 40-17 in Bloemfontein, before the Stormers beat the
Rebels 31-15 in Cape Town.