Christchurch - The Crusaders made an emphatic claim for a home semi-final in the Super Rugby competition with a 34-8 bonus-point victory over the Highlanders on Saturday.
With the table-topping Waratahs already assured of one semi-final, it will take a Herculean effort by the Sharks to deny the Crusaders the second berth.
The Sharks will need to beat the Stormers by a 35-point margin and pick up a bonus point in the final match of the regular season if they are to sneak into second place.
The Crusaders, seven-time Super Rugby champions, led the Highlanders 17-3 at half-time, scoring their first try just ahead of the break, before adding three more for their bonus point in the second half.
The Highlanders struggled to find their way with their talismanic captain Ben Smith sidelined by a leg infection.
They were punished for repeated indiscretions from which Dan Carter landed four penalties to give the Crusaders a handy lead in the first half before they began exchanging penalties for tries.
Matt Todd scored the first two and Corey Flynn the fourth from lineout drives when the Crusaders turned down handy shots at goal and kicked for the corner.
The third try came when scrumhalf Andy Ellis tapped and ran when the Crusaders had a close-range penalty and resulted in Nemani Nadolo scoring wide out.
The Crusaders forwards dominated throughout the match with their scrum and lineout both a class above what the Highlanders could muster, and the home side benefitted from five steals against the throw.
After beating the Blues two weeks ago, Crusaders centre Ryan Crotty said they were building nicely for the finals series.
"We've had a couple of good wins over the Blues and the Highlanders and it gives us momentum going into the finals. It's been a good couple of weeks."
While the Highlanders have qualified for the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, the Crusaders have reached the knock-out stage for the 13th consecutive year.Scorers:
Tries: Matt Todd (2), Nemani Nadolo, Corey Flynn
Conversion: Dan Carter
Try: Richard Buckman
Penalty: Hayden Parker
15 Israel Dagg, 14 Kieron Fonotia, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Ben Funnell, 1 Wyatt Crockett
Substitutes: 16 Corey Flynn, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Willi Heinz, 22 Tom Taylor, 23 Johnny McNichollHighlanders:
15 Trent Renata, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Hayden Parker, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (captain), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames
Substitutes: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 JP Koen, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Phil Burleigh