For much of this season the Highlanders have been New Zealand's nearly men.

Narrow defeats were a frustrating theme for coach Aaron Mauger, especially in their recent five-loss run.

During that time there was a sense the Highlanders were never far away from clicking, and last week's victory over the Blues in Dunedin, which snapped that string of defeats, clearly released the pressure valve.

The shackles have now been well and truly broken with this steamrolling of the Sunwolves in Tokyo - this was the rugby definition of running riot.

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The initial reaction to this hammering may be to brush off such a performance, given it is the Sunwolves. But not only have they knocked over the Chiefs and Waratahs away from home, in most other matches the Sunwolves have been more competitive than any previous campaign. Last week they pushed the Hurricanes to the brink before succumbing by six points in Tokyo.

This time they were never in the match, to the point of embarrassment. Conceding a half century only gives credence to the decision to axe them from Super Rugby in 2021.

The Highlanders had the bonus point in hand by halftime, leading 33-0 after five tries – four of those in the opening quarter. By the finish they racked up eight tries, and further ignominy came when the Sunwolves' only try to Semisi Masirewa was scrubbed out for a forward pass.

Highlight reels may not accurately capture it but the supreme dominance should be attributed to the Highlanders' impressive tight-five.

Their scrum, led by the front-row of Tyrel Lomax, Liam Coltman and Daniel Lienert-Brown, resembled a heavy roller flattening a day five test cricket pitch, consistently marching forward throughout.

Their collective dominance was such the Sunwolves were forced to change their tighthead prop less than 30 minutes in, though that did little to halt the onslaught.

Whether it was Tom Franklin or Liam Coltman, the Highlanders pack regularly split the hosts up the middle. They got in behind and generated rapid ruck ball to give the Sunwolves no time to scramble or reset.

Defensively, the Sunwolves were particularly poor. They fell off a staggering 42 tackles and failed to wrap up the ball carrier which saw them burnt by frequent offloads.

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Outside their powerful scrum, the Highlanders pack crushed the Sunwolves by pinching lineouts and dominating the breakdown where Jackson Hemopo and Elliot Dixon were among those to pilfer turnovers.

On the back of this platform, and outside Aaron Smith who returned to start, young playmaker Josh Ioane looked the part.

He regularly picked the right options – from a show and go for his try to several pinpoint crossfield kicks to put Tevita Li in space to his sharp goal kicking, this was Ioane's best display of his budding Super Rugby career.

Ioane, in truth, always seemed the Highlanders' best prospect at No 10 and it was a wonder Mauger promoted Marty Banks earlier in the season.

The Highlanders were brilliant in their handling and support play, executing the vast majority of their chances, despite missing the influential Ben Smith.

For the moment frustrations from earlier in this campaign were pushed aside as the Highlanders moved past the Blues into third in the New Zealand conference, the only dampener a serious leg injury to replacement first-five Bryn Gatland.

Their run home includes a trip to South Africa, but harness confidence gleaned from the past two weeks and, from here, the southerners should be well in the playoff hunt.

Highlanders 52 (Tevita Li 2, Tom Franklin, Tyrel Lomax, Josh Ioane, Liam Coltman, Rob Thompson, Sio Tomkinson tries; Ioane 5 cons, Bryn Gatland con)
Sunwolves 0
HT: 33-0