An Aaron Smith double has guided the Highlanders to a clinical second-half performance for a 33-12 victory over ACT Brumbies and a crucial bonus point.
The Highlanders knew that a win was crucial to their hopes of reaching their first final since they won the Super Rugby title in 2015.
The visitors came into the contest on 18 competition points, three behind the Hurricanes atop the table, one behind the Blues and level with the Crusaders.
After a nervy 60 minutes when the Brumbies frustrated the Kiwi side, Highlanders captain Smith showed his class, grabbing two tries and assisting another to steer his side to a five-tries-to-two victory in Canberra.
The Highlanders lead 14-12 at halftime, before running up 19 unanswered second-half points to move them to the top of the table.
They will book themselves a spot in the final, if the Blues lose tomorrow or the Crusaders fail to beat Melbourne Rebels by 33 points.
The Brumbies opened the scoring with a brilliant team try that saw Irae Simone deliver a beautiful offload to his midfield partner Len Ikitau to finish in the corner.
The Highlanders waste no time hitting back, with hooker Ash Dixon converting a perfectly executed lineout maul to score his fourth try of the competition for a 7-5 lead after 20 minutes.
Smith backed up his co-captain's lead, when he finished off a brilliant try a few minutes later. Mitch Hunt delivered a wide pass to Jona Nareki, who broke into the 22, before firing inside to Smith to finish the well-worked try.
The home side hit back seven minutes later, when hooker Lachlan Lonergan finished off a perfect lineout maul to send his side into the break trailing 14-12.
The Highlanders roared into the second half, when Smith sniped off a back of a powerful scrum to grab his second for the evening six minutes after the restart.
The visitors extended their lead, when they executed a lineout move straight off the training ground that would've made regular coach Tony Brown proud from his Japan base.
The Highlanders went to the back of the lineout, where Bryn Evans claimed and immediately fired a pass back to Josh Dickson. He, in turn, dished off to Billy Harmon, who fended off Solomone Kata to finish the set move.
The visitors clinical second half continued, when they grabbed the crucial bonus-point try, after Smith fired a flat pass for Patelesio Tomkinson to score his fourth in the competition.
The Brumbies threw everything at the Highlanders, as they looked to play party poopers and take away the crucial bonus point.
The visitors' defence was resolute and held on for the 21-point victory that sees them move to the top of the table.
Highlanders 33 (Dixon, Harmon, Tomkinson & Smith 2 tries; Hunt 4 conversions) Brumbies 12 (Ikitau & Lonergan tries; Kuenzle conversion)
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