The free-flowing Highlanders have been one of the most entertaining sides this campaign but they had to show grit and steel to get their ninth win of the season.
Perhaps weary after a two-game tour of South Africa and struggling with the narrow, physical approach of the Force, the Highlanders backline failed to click and opted to kick an uncharacteristic amount of ball.
Second half tries by John Hardie and Aaron Smith blew out the scoreboard but a four-try bonus point win never looked likely.
The Highlanders are fifth in the overall standings with three matches remaining as they bid for a top six playoff finish for their sixth playoff campaign.
They host the Waikato Chiefs, a point and place ahead of them in the standings, next week in Invercargill but will have to improve against the twice champions.
A forgettable first half ended 6-3 to the visitors after two Lima Sopoaga penalties bettered one from Sias Ebersohn as both sides appeared to lose confidence as the turnovers rose.
The Highlanders eventually found a way to breach the Force line, openside flanker John Hardie crossing for a try in the corner after an 11-man rolling maul from a five-metre line-out bulldozed through the Australian defence.
Sopoaga converted to stretch the lead to 13-3 as the Highlanders wrestled control of the contest but struggled to turn large swaths of possession and territory into tries.
Sopoaga slotted a 71st minute drop goal to stretch the lead before scrumhalf Smith ended a broken play move by touching down for a late second try. – Reuters
Original source: Highlanders beat struggling Force