The Western Force came within inches of producing the upset of the season, but had to be content with a pulsating 23-all Vodacom Super 14 draw against the Crusaders on Friday.
The Crusaders had to rely on the Force being reduced to 14 men late in the game to score two tries and level matters after trailing throughout the 80 minutes.
And a dubious TMO decision in the dying minutes denied Force right wing Haig Sare a try that would have given the Force a victory they more than deserved against a team that had not dropped any points this season.
The Force lived up to their name in the first quarter as they took the game to the Crusaders with a committed display from all 15 men that rocked the five-times champions.
It was the clash between the top team on the table and the team rock bottom, but on the performance in the first half particularly you would have struggled to convince anyone that the Force were the worst team in the competition.
The Force were in the Crusadersâ€™ faces and forced them to make uncharacteristic errors. The Force were able to capitalise on those despite lagging behind in the possession stakes.
The Forceâ€™s forwards were commanding and they laid the foundation for the home team to run in two awesome tries through Cameron Shepherd and Brock James.
Those scores gave them a 14-5 lead after Mose Tuiali’i had replied for the Crusaders after Shepherdâ€™s score had given the home team the early 7-0 lead.
The 30,231-strong crowd, most of whom have remained loyal despite the Forceâ€™s losing streak, were treated to some scintillating rugby in the opening 40 minutes.
Shepherd added two penalties to consolidate the good work done, but those sandwiched a three-pointer from Daniel Carter that took the teams into the break with the Force up 20-8.
There was no change to the score-line in the first 15 minutes of the second stanza as the Crusaders struggled to come to terms with the aggressive style employed by John Mitchellâ€™s charges.
The Crusaders though started to apply themselves better in the tight exchanges and with captain Richie McCaw leading the way they peppered the Force line.
The visitors spurned three goalable kicks and instead opted for the lineout in the corner. But the Forceâ€™s defensive line held firm in the face of the concerted onslaught.
Eventually, Carter lined up a penalty that reduced the deficit to 20-11 and that remained as the game swept into the final 20 minutes. Shepherd though made it 23-11 with his fifth successful kick.
The Crusaders were shocked into action and threw everything at the Force. And the home side were reduced to 14 men as the Crusaders were denied a good scoring opportunity.
From the ensuing penalty, Leon MacDonald was fed the ball and crashed over in the corner to make it a seven-point game. Rico Gear then made it two tries in as many minutes. Carterâ€™s conversion tied the scores, but it was more than the champions-in-waiting deserved.
On this performance, the Force will embark on their SA tour where they play the Cats, Cheetahs and Sharks with renewed confidence that they can get an overseas win in their first season.
Tries: Cameron Shepherd, Brock James
Con: Shepherd 2
Pen: Shepherd 3
Tries: Mose Tuiali’i, Leon MacDonald, Rico Gear
Con: Daniel Carter 1
Pen: Carter 2
By Andrew Hollely