In the heavily contested quest for an All Blacks midfield spot, Quinn Tupaea used the Force to press his case.
In a dominant 54-21 win for the Chiefs over the Force in Hamilton, Tupaea flaunted his strength and skill to the tune of a hat-trick.
Tupaea has impressed throughout the campaign as he continues to develop as a player, and his work against the Force highlighted his maturity and the confidence he has in his ability.
For each of his three tries, the 23-year-old had some work to do to get through the defence, though his third was the most impressive as he palmed Force No 10 Jake McIntyre off with comical ease. On the other side of the ball, he got stuck in with plenty of tackles and good work at the breakdown.
It was a performance akin to several others in the squad staking their claim for higher honours. Brad Weber showed how damaging he can be with ball in hand, breaking open the Force defence, while Pita Gus Sowakula put in another workhorse shift.
It was all made possible by the platform laid by the pack, who dominated the Force at the scrum and were strong at the breakdown allowing for good service from the ruck.
The was some concern early, however, when co-captain Sam Cane left the pitch with an apparent knee injury after 17 minutes. He was able to walk off under his own power and with the side edging closer again to securing a home quarter-final – a win over the Fijian Drua in their final game will lock up a top-four spot - his exit may have been precautionary.
The tone was set for the Chiefs early in the piece as, while it wasn't always convincing when the ball moved along the backline, the forwards were assured in their work. That allowed the backs the freedom to move and it paid off when, after a big Chiefs scrum, they were able to sling the ball wide to Tupaea who opted to take on the defence rather than move it to an unmarked Chase Tiatia on the wing from about 10m out. It proved to be an adequate decision as he got the scoreboard ticking over.
It was Aidan Ross who scored the next points, going over from close range, before another Tupaea try gave the hosts a 21-0 lead.
A beautiful kick pass from McIntyre to Toni Pulu on the wing saw the Force get on the board and end the half with some hope, but that was extinguished quickly after halftime.
Tries to Tupaea and Kaleb Trask after a messy start extended the lead, before a pick-and-go try from Tupou Vaai and a Samisoni Taukei'aho double – unsurprisingly from a couple of lineout drives – sealed the match.
The Force crossed through Jeremy Thrush and Michael McDonald in the second half, but it was a night to enjoy for the Chiefs and their fans as a home quarter-final looms.
Chiefs 54 (Quinn Tupaea 3, Samisoni Taukei'aho 2, Aidan Ross, Kaleb Trask, Tupou Vaa'i tries; Bryn Gatland 6 cons, Trask con)
Force 21 (Toni Pulu, Jeremy Thrush, Michael McDonald tries; Jake McIntyre 2 cons, Ian Prior con)