Crusaders close in on semis
The Crusaders cruised to a comfortable 34-8 victory over the Highlanders at the AMI Stadium in Christchurch to all-but clinch second place and a bye into the Super Rugby semi-finals in two weeks.
The third-placed Sharks must now beat the Stormers by 35 points and score four tries later in Cape Town to overtake them in second.
Flanker Matt Todd's two tries highlighted a superior forward performance by the Crusaders as they hammered the visitors to secure top spot in the New Zealand Super Rugby Conference.
The seven-time champions dominated the game after the first quarter with their scrum demolishing the Highlanders, whose points came from a Hayden Parker penalty and Richard Buckman try, though they had already assured a playoff spot before the game.
Indeed, the Highlanders - who will finish sixth overall - and are now likely to travel to Durban to face the Sharks next weekend.
Dan Carter slotted four first half penalties for the home side, who broke open the game when Todd crashed over for tries following attacking lineouts either side of half-time, before Nemani Nadolo and Corey Flynn, from another attacking lineout, crossed to cement the bonus point win.
After beating the Auckland Blues two weeks ago, Crusaders centre Ryan Crotty said they were building nicely for the final.
"We talked about being able to take momentum into the playoffs," Crotty said. "We had a stuff-up against the Hurricanes a couple of weeks ago, but we've had a couple of good wins over the Blues and the Highlanders, which gives us that momentum going into the finals.
"It's been a good couple of weeks. The boys have had that edge in training. We've talked a lot about preparing generally and the guys feel pretty excited about what they can achieve."
The Crusaders had won four of their last five Super Rugby meetings with the Highlanders and they made another promising start after Shaun Treeby was caught holding onto the ball, Carter made no mistake with his forty metre kick to hand them the lead inside three minutes.
The New Zealand fly-half nailed another penalty after 18 minutes before Parker replied from out wide to keep the Highlanders in the game.
But just before half-time Carter slotted home his third penalty of the game and then Todd crashed over from a lineout maul with Carter doing the rest for a 17-3 lead.
Todd, who made his Super Rugby debut in 2011, was on a mission to finally win a title after losing a grand final and two semis, went over for his second try of the match just after the break, forcing his way across the whitewash from a driving lineout and Carter kicked an easy conversion.
The home supporters were being treated to some slick rugby and the third try quickly followed when Israel Dagg's offload to Kieran Read was popped into the grateful hands of Nadolo.
With the hosts looking to grab a fourth try and get the bonus point they needed to secure second spot, but the Dunedin-based side came on strong with some consistent attacking play of their own and were duly rewarded when Buckman forced his way over after initially being stopped short to make it 29-8 with a little under 10 minutes remaining.
With time running out, another lineout drive was rewarded when Crusaders' replacement Flynn, a long servant of the Christchurch franchise, was the man to peel away from the drive to complete a resounding win.
"It definitely hurts but we've got a chance, we're in the playoffs and we've got to be better next week," Highlanders captain Nasi Manu said.
While the Highlanders have qualified for the play-offs for t he first time in 12 years, the Crusaders have reached the knock-out stage for the 13th consecutive year.