The Crusaders have the inside running to defend their Super Rugby title after securing top spot for the finals with a 45-22 win over the Highlanders.
On a big night in Christchurch for Crusaders greats Kieran Read and Wyatt Crockett, their team clinched the coveted home advantage throughout the play-offs with a round to spare.
Playmaker Richie Mo’unga contributed 25 points in the five-try win, while winger George Bridge grabbed a double to bring his try tally for the season to 11.
The Highlanders battled hard to stay in touch during the first half, but could only manage one try – to Waisake Naholo – in the second stanza as the Crusaders wore them down up front and the missed tackles started to mount.
However, the night belonged to Crockett, who became the first player to make 200 Super Rugby appearances.
The 35-year-old put in an unexpectedly long shift, introduced off the bench in the fifth minute following injury to All Blacks prop Joe Moody.
Also in the limelight was No.8 and All Blacks captain Read, who played his first meaningful game since undergoing surgery in December, and was solid until being replaced early in the second spell.
The scoreline matched the Highlanders’ 45-22 loss to the Chiefs last week as their record sunk to 9-6.
They are guaranteed to have a quarter-final on the road in the opening round of the play-offs, regardless the result of their home clash with the Melbourne Rebels next week.
The Crusaders had opened out to an ominous 12-0 lead with early tries to Bridge and David Havili before the Highlanders hit back through prop Tyrel Lomax after 20 minutes.
The Highlanders struck again four minutes out from half-time, fullback Ben Smith touching down to narrow the home team lead to 18-17.
But the Crusaders restored their eight-point lead with a stoppage-time try to Scott Barrett from a sweeping move which featured surprising pace and a well-timed off-load from Crockett.
Ahead 25-17 at half-time, the Crusaders struck just three minutes after the restart, Mo’unga kicking in behind the defence then outpacing allcomers to regather and dive over for a 32-17 lead.
Three minutes later, Naholo hared away for the Highlanders’ third try but that was it for the visitors, the Crusaders working remorselessly to build their tally through Mo’unga’s boot and Bridge’s 70th minute try.