No pressure, Highlanders. A surprise misstep by the Hurricanes in Perth on Saturday night has left the southerners with a job to do on Sunday to sneak into the final Super Rugby Pacific quarterfinal spot.
The Force had to win this regular season finale to give themselves a shot at eighth place, and did it by upsetting the Canes on the back of a late try from midfielder Byron Ralston, and some excellent defence under pressure in the final minutes.
That puts the 4-10 West Australians a point ahead of the Highlanders in eighth at present, with the southerners needing to collect something from their final match against the Rebels in Melbourne on Sunday to earn themselves a quarter against the red-hot Blues next Saturday night in Auckland.
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There was not as much at stake for the Canes when the match kicked off, with the men from the capital locked into fifth spot, and a quarterfinal visit to the Brumbies in Canberra. It showed somewhat, too, with a below-par performance that interspersed moments of class with plenty of considerably less merit.
The Hurricanes' second defeat in their last six sees them finish at 8-6 on 39 points, a point ahead of nearest pursuers the Waratahs.
The Kiwis had their chances to finish on a high point as they led 22-20 into the final quarter, but after Ralston's go-ahead score in the 74th minute they couldn't find the accuracy when it mattered to produce a winning response.
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Aidan Morgan and Josh Moorby continued their strong rookie campaigns with excellent performances in a busy Canes backline. Moorby, in particular, with his pair of tries taking his season tally to seven, looks an exciting prospect with attacking firepower at the back. Morgan's goalkicking remains his biggest work-on.
Wes Goosen (95m on the carry) and Salesi Rayasi (70) also ran hard and powerfully for the visitors, while young No 8 Brayden Iose put in a big shift before making way for Ardie Savea for the final quarter.
The Canes took a 17-13 lead into the sheds at halftime, no doubt slightly disappointed by the late try given up to Force prop Santiago Medrano that allowed the home side to climb back into the contest.
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Earlier three tries in a golden quarter of an hour had taken the visitors from 0-6 down to 17-6 up within five minutes of the break. Fullback Moorby crossed for two of them to punctuate a fine first 40, while Iose had the third when he was put away splendidly down the left touchline by the power and creativity of Rayasi.
A Rayasi yellow card and Andrew Ready try handed the early second-half momentum to the Force, Rayasi put the Kiwis back in front (22-20) just shy of the three-quarter mark, and then things rather unravelled for the visitors over the run home.
For veteran Perth-based Kiwis Jeremy Thrush and Richard Kahui they must now await events in Melbourne to see if this is indeed the end of their careers. The ball, you could say, is in the Highlanders' court.
Force 27 (Santiago Medrano try 39min, Andrew Ready try 45min, Byron Ralston try 74min; Ian Prior 2 pen, 2 con; Michael McDonald con) Hurricanes 22 (Josh Moorby 2 tries 21min, 27min, Brayden Iose try 35min, Salesi Rayasi try 58min; Aidan Morgan con)
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