The Highlanders have evoked memories of last year’s triumphant Super Rugby campaign with a scintillating 34-15 win over the Lions in Dunedin.
Three long-range tries early in the second spell blew open what had been a close and fast-moving affair, handing the South African side their first loss of the season.
Following wins on the road against the Sunwolves and Chiefs, the Lions couldn’t match the speed and verve of the defending champions, who scored four tries to two.
It was a second successive win for the Highlanders, who unleashed the successful recipe of 2015, playing with a heady mix of continuity and astute kicking from halves Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga.
They also surprised with a scrum which dominated the visitors, who had based last week’s upset of the Chiefs on a strong set piece.
Sopoaga, who finished with five-from-five shots at goal plus a late drop goal, was in exceptional touch, setting up the only try of the first spell with an angled grubber kick for winger Matt Faddes.
The Highlanders led 10-3 at halftime and following the resumption, captain Ben Smith mixed speed of thought with his exceptional pace in a brilliant 75m try. He took a quick throw-in and received the return pass from All Blacks teammate Smith before heading off the cover defence.
The Highlanders scored 14 points in three minutes, courtesy of a long-range intercept try to Faddes, who pounced on a loose pass from Lions fullback Jaco Van Der Walt.
The home side’s final try was a sweeping team effort from deep, ending with Smith’s last pass to standout centre Malakai Fekitoa.
The hosts were scoreless over the final quarter following Sopoaga’s drop goal, and they conceded tries to centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg and reserve loose forward Ruan Ackermann, which denied them a bonus point.
Of concern heading into their fourth-round match against the Waratahs were injuries to lock Joe Wheeler, winger Patrick Osborne and flanker Dan Pryor which forced them from the field.
The Lions return to South Africa with two wins from three offshore games and will play their first home game next week against the Cheetahs.