The Highlanders kept themselves in play-off contention with a 23-3 win against the Force in Perth on Saturday, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
The four log points cements the Highlanders' position at fifth on the overall standings, with the sixth-placed Brumbies five points behind.
However, the New Zealand franchise were far from their best, and never really looked like getting a bonus point against the tournament's worst team.
The Force had 60% of the possesssion and territory in a forgettable first half, but just a penalty goal from Sias Ebersohn to show for it. They should have scored an early try, but Marcel Brache knocked on just before the line when trying to gather Ebersohn's kick ahead.
The Highlanders only got into the opposition 22 on a couple of occasions, but two penalties from Lima Sopoaga saw them leading 6-3 at the break.
While Sopoaga missed a long-range attempt early in the second half, the Highlanders went further in front when John Hardie went over for a converted try from a lineout driving maul.
The visitors continued to dominate, and while they couldn't get over the tryline despite coming close on several occasions, Sopoaga was successful with a drop goal that made it 16-3 with seven minutes remaining.
The Highlanders then sealed the win when Marty Banks won possession in the air, and Richard Buckman broke away before offloading in the tackle to Aaron Smith, who scored a converted try.
Force – Penalty: Sias Ebersohn.
Highlanders – Tries: John Hardie, Aaron Smith. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalties: Sopoaga (2). Drop goal: Sopoaga.
Force – 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Marcel Brache, 12 Kyle Godwin, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Ryan Louwrens, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Steve Mafi, 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pekahou Cowan.
Subs: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Chris Heiberg, 18 Guy Millar, 19 Sam Wykes, 20 Kane Koteka, 21 Alby Mathewson, 22 Luke Burton, 23 Brad Lacey
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 John Hardie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Richard Buckman, 23 Marty Banks.
Photo: Robert Prezioso/Getty Images