Highlanders produced a stirring fightback to extend their ominous winning run to six Super Rugby matches with a 32-20 victory over Western Force in a brutal contest at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday.
The Super Rugby champions had reeled off seven straight home victories ahead of Force's trip to Dunedin, but that run was in danger of coming to an end when converted tries from Dane Haylett-Petty and Ben McCalman put the visitors 14-0 up after only 11 minutes.
Highlanders also lost prop Brendon Edmonds early on to an ankle injury and Elliot Dixon suffered a head injury, but rallied to level at half-time with a Patrick Osborne try and a brilliant team move which resulted in Dan Pryor touching down.
Jamie Joseph's side completed the comeback after the break, with Matt Faddes and Jason Emery going over to put them top of the overall standings.
Force flanker Angus Cottrell was carried off midway through the second half, while Adam Coleman and Ross Haylett-Petty went to the blood bin as they slumped to a third defeat in a row following a 41-6 hammering by Hurricanes last time out.
Ryan Crotty's hat-trick ensured Crusaders' hoodoo over Lions continued as they won a thrilling contest 43-37 in Friday's other Super Rugby clash at Ellis Park.
Highlanders 32-20 Western Force
Force threatened a surprise victory, which would have been only their second of the season, when two early tries stunned the champions. But Highlanders came roaring back, scoring two tries in each half to continue their fine form and only missing out on a bonus point when Ash Dixon's last-gasp try was ruled out for a knock-on.
Lions 37-43 Crusaders
Crusaders have now won their last seven matches against Lions, but were made to work by their opponents, who were able to claim a losing bonus point courtesy of Elton Jantjies' late penalty - which took his tally to 22 points.
THE KEY MOMENTS
Pryor's magnificently worked try less than 10 minutes after Osborne had got Highlanders on the board pegged Force back and ensured Joseph's in-form side were level at the break, allowing them to take a firm grip on the contest in the second half.
Crusaders held a slender 22-20 lead at half-time, but Crotty crossed twice in quick succession in the second half to complete his hat-trick and Lions were unable to mount a fightback.
Force captain Matt Hodgson: "It was a much better performance from us. We lost a lot of guys, had a hooker packing down at second row for a bit there and to only let one try in after that was a pretty good effort."
Highlanders are top of not only the Australasian Group, but also the overall standings. Chiefs can take over at the summit on Saturday with a win at Brumbies. Crusaders have now won four out of five matches to sit fourth in the Australasian Group, with Lions' second defeat ensuring they sit third in the South African standings.