The Highlanders dismantled the Reds 40-17 at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin with a clinical display of high-tempo rugby and quality finishing to cement their seventh-placed Wildcard playoff position with another bonus-point victory.
The Kiwis started like a team possessed; scoring two tries inside the opening 10 minutes through Waisake Naholo and James Lentjes.
The Reds stemmed the blue tide in the second quarter to trail 21-5 at the break, after Izack Rodda pulled a try back after Kane Hammington’s five-pointer.
However, despite Alex Mafi and Caleb Timu’s second-half tries, the Queenslanders could not stop the New Zealanders.
Scores from Tevita Li and Ash Dixon, as well as a penalty try, saw the Highlanders ease to a six-try to three, 23-point victory under the roof in Otago and end the Reds sorry season.
Stephen Moore led out the Reds, and in doing so, he became the highest capped hooker in the tournament’s history, overtaking Keven Mealamu with his 176th appearance.
Within the opening two minutes of the match, the Reds must have known that they were in for a long evening in New Zealand.
Naholo, the rampaging Fijian caused the Australians all manner of problems, scoring early to give the home team a lead that they would never surrender.
Li made the initial break and the Highlanders went wide. After some quick recycling, Rob Thompson collected and threw a long ball to Malakai Fekitoa. The centre steps and plays the winger, who then runs over Eto Nabuli and scores in the corner
The centre stepped and played the winger, who then ran over Eto Nabuli before scoring in the corner. Lima Sopoaga made it 7-0 after four minutes.
Five minutes’ later, Lentjes had a five-pointer. Li and Fekitoa were involved, again. Some quick ball saw the Highlanders go wide to Naholo, who took on three defenders before the flanker ran through Karmichael Hunt to score.
Sopoaga converted to make it two goals to nil. The Reds stemmed the blue tide up until the last minutes of the half.
Hammington crossed for the Highlanders’ third try. The scrumhalf made a break from the base of the centre-field scrum and ghosted through James Tuttle and Caleb Timu. The conversion was good: 21-0.
It had been a good spell for the Aussies before Hammington’s try, they just could not finish. They did, however, pull one try back.
The Reds went through another multi-phase play, but on the ninth phase, Quade Cooper kicked the ball away.
However, the Reds won a penalty and took it quickly. Rodda picked up at the base of the ruck, and for the first time, the Reds got quick ball at the breakdown, and the lock dived over, from close range and near the touchline.
Cooper missed, but at least the Queenslanders had something to show for their first-half efforts.
Less than two minutes after the restart, Li scored the Highlanders’ fourth try.
The wing dived over the whitewash after taking Sopoaga’s final pass. The move was almost botched with some shoddy handling, but Li’s finish was sublime. He had to beat Timu and still dot the ball down while staying in the field.
The conversion was missed, but the score differential was 21 points.
The Highlanders’ scrum was also starting to gain the upper hand. And after another collapsed set piece, they were awarded a penalty try: game over at 33-5.
Mafi pulled a try back for the Reds on 54 minutes, after a superb driving maul by the visitor’s forwards. Cooper’s conversion was wide, but at least the Reds had double figures, right?
Dixon scored with 15 minutes to play, driving himself over the goal line with a powerful leg drive.
Timu hit back for the Reds soon after. The flanker collected a wonderful offload from Izaia Perese on the touchline, after Cooper sent a wide, skip-pass to the wing. Cooper, finally, found his radar, making the score 40-17.
That was all the Australians had left in the tank, ending another poor season with a loss to Kiwi opposition.
Final Score: Highlanders 40 (21) Reds 17 (5)
Tries – Naholo, Lentjes, Hammington, Li, Penalty Try, Dixon
Con – Sopoaga (4)
Tries – Rodda, Mafi, Timu
Con – Cooper
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant Ref 1: Jamie Nutbrown
Assistant Ref 2: James Doleman
TMO: Aaron Paterson
15 Richard Buckman, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Luke Whitelock (captain), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Guy Millar, 19 Gareth Evans, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Patelesio Tomkinson.
15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Izaia Perese, 13 Campbell Magnay, 12 Duncan Paia’aua, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 James Tuttle, 8 Adam Korczyk, 7 George Smith, 6 Caleb Timu, 5 Izack Rodda, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Taniela Tupou, 2 Stephen Moore (captain), 1 Sef Fa’agase.
Replacements: 16 Alex Mafi, 17 Markus Vanzati, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Kane Douglas, 20 Reece Hewat, 21 Moses Sorovi, 22 Hamish Stewart, 23 Jayden Ngamanu