No 14 Waisake Naholo scored the 4th try for the Highlanders on Friday. Photo: Shaun Roy/BackpagePix

WELLINGTON – Otago Highlanders produced their best performance of the season to thrash NSW Waratahs 49-12 in Invercargill Friday and maintain their slim hopes of making the Super Rugby playoffs.

The Highlanders scored seven tries to two in a match where both teams required a bonus point to have any chance of making the final eight.

The result was never in doubt as the Highlanders seized control with a six-try blitz in the first half.

Although they keep their season alive, they still need the Golden Lions to lose against the Northern Bulls or the Waikato Chiefs to beat the Melbourne Rebels without a bonus point.

But they could have done no more on the night, making a flying start that stunned the Waratahs.

“We knew we had to score some tries so we've done our part and at times played some really good footy,” captain Luke Whitelock said.

While the Highlanders' 52-0 victory over Japan's Sunwolves in April was numerically superior, the way they dismantled the Waratahs showed a class they have struggled to find this year.  

The result avenged a quarter-final loss to the Waratahs in Sydney last year, the last time the two teams met.

It also continues a nine-game losing streak in New Zealand for the Sydneysiders, whose last win on Kiwi soil came in 2015.

The Waratahs were without Wallabies Michael Hooper, Rob Simmons, Sekope Kepu, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale, who were all rested under Rugby Australia policy for a World Cup year.

The loss end a difficult season for NSW, marred by the acrimonious mid-season departure of their best player Israel Folau over homophobic comments, which caused numerous off-field distractions.

Fullback Josh McKay made a perfect start for the Highlanders in the seventh minute, kicking the ball from deep in his own half, then sprinting in pursuit and crossing the line.

Winger Tevita Li added another in the left corner three minutes later and the hosts doggedly worked the ball through 19 phases for a third from Tom Franklin.

Waisake Naholo powered his way over the line for a fourth to make it 28-0 after 25 minutes.

A well-taken try for Alex Newsome finally put the Waratahs on the board but their joy was short-lived as the Highlanders were given a penalty try after Tom Robertson pulled down a lineout drive.

Roberson also earned himself a yellow card and Tei Walden notched a sixth extending the Highlanders' lead to 42-7.

Fly-half Mack Mason added a second for the Waratahs with eight minutes to go but Rob Thompson had the final say for the Highlanders with a try in the last minute.

Agence France-Presse (AFP)