Five-eighth Richie Mo’unga scored two of their five tries and slotted all of his goalkicks in a 23-point haul as the nine-time champions took command of what had been a bruising South Island derby on Friday.
Up just 17-14 at the break, the implacable Crusaders sensed blood when Highlanders forward Liam Squire spent time in the sinbin, bagging two quick tries to effectively book another semi-final berth.
The eighth-ranked Highlanders were all aggression early on but were barely in the contest against the top qualifiers as the match wore on, failing to handle the intense second half pressure from a team chasing their third straight title.
The Crusaders will host the winner of Saturday’s Hurricanes-Bulls quarter-final in Wellington.
They will be hotly favoured if their All Blacks forward contingent play with the same muscle and Mo’unga with the same class.
Winger Sio Tomkinson’s try had the Highlanders 7-3 up through the opening quarter but the hosts leapt clear when Mo’unga put fullback David Havili across and then scored himself after some skilful Crusaders offloads.
The Highlanders pulled the margin back to three after Teihorangi Walden slid through off a bullet pass from Aaron Smith.
A key moment was the yellow card shown to All Blacks flanker Squire for a no-arms tackle on opposite Whetukamokamo Douglas soon after the break.
The clinical Crusaders took advantage of the extra number with big drives to set up tries for Douglas and Michael Alaalatoa.
A 28th straight win in Christchurch was assured when Mo’unga scored from a chip and chase.
More pertinently, the champions have never lost a home finals match since the competition’s inception in 1996.
The match marked the end of notable Super Rugby careers for six Highlanders.
In other news: Head coach Gibson quits Waratahs
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