11 Jul 2016

Highlanders seal finals berth

11:56 am on 11 July 2016

New Zealand will have four sides in the Super Rugby playoffs after the Highlanders sealed their quarter-final place with a 34-8 win over the Jaguares in Argentina.

Highlanders' players Aaron Smith, Elliot Dixon and Malakai Fekitoa celebrate.

Highlanders' players Aaron Smith, Elliot Dixon and Malakai Fekitoa celebrate. Photo: Photosport

The local conference-leading Chiefs, the Crusaders and the Hurricanes had already qualified for the quarter-finals.

All Blacks flanker Elliot Dixon scored two tries to help the Highlanders to victory in Buenos Aires.

The Highlanders moved to 48 points on the table, giving New Zealand sides four of the five places available to the Australasian group in the quarter-finals.

The last matches of the regular season are played next week.

The Chiefs (51), Crusaders (50) and Hurricanes (48) had already qualified after victories over Australian sides during the weekend.

Both the ACT Brumbies and New South Wales Waratahs are locked on 39 points and only one can advance to the quarter-finals as the group winners of the Australian conference.

The Highlanders were boosted by the arrival of five All Blacks after they missed last week's trip to South Africa and they immediately sparked the side with fullback Ben Smith crossing in the second minute.

Highlanders second-five Rob Thompson also showcased the the team's strength on the counter-attack when he finished off after the hosts had turned the ball over in midfield.

The visitors were then forced to defend for much of the next 15 minutes and held out wave after wave of Jaguares attack and earning the ire of referee Angus Gardner.

The counter-punching Highlanders stole back possession and swept down field with a number of forwards passing out of tackles to a support player with Dixon finishing off.

The Jaguares, essentially an Argentinean national side, had Juan Martin Hernandez score after a superb counter-attack created a massive overlap to let the inside centre stroll over.

Highlanders first-five Lima Sopoaga, who had converted all three tries, added a penalty to give his side a 24-8 lead at half-time, which he extended to 27-8 with his second penalty just after the break.

Gardner, however, was then forced to issue a final warning to both sides after some niggly off-the-ball incidents resulted in several shoving matches, which caused the intensity to drop off and the game to settle into a holding pattern.

Dixon's second try in the 64th minute sealed the game.

The Highlanders clash with the Chiefs next week in Dunedin as New Zealand's dominant sides jostle for final placings.