Granted it was a dead rubber but there was still plenty of enthralling rugby on show as Western Force held off the Highlanders 33-28 in Perth.
Granted it was a dead rubber but there was still plenty of enthralling rugby in Perth as Western Force held off the Highlanders 33-28 on Saturday.
Both franchises were already ruled out of making the Super 14 play-off cut before they took to the field, with hot and cold season performances proving their eventual downfall.
And with nothing to play for except pride and morale, the pair stayed true to form as the Force put on something of a first-half leaving party for Matt Giteau and co. before the Kiwis fought back and were very unlucky not to leave victorious.
Fans had brought good luck banners for their million-dollar man and the Wallaby was in typically red-hot form early on as he pulled the Kiwis every which way in what's become his accustomed brand of attacking brilliance.
There was innovative kicking from hand, mistake-free distribution and a constant running threat that the Force will surely miss next term alongside the departing Drew Mitchell and Josh Valentine, who leave for the Waratahs and Brumbies respectively.
And so to what looked like being a one-sided contest, which took just 40 seconds to get moving as Giteau's smart grubber through finding international colleague Ryan Cross for a stroll to the corner.
Then it was another leaving man, Scott Staniforth – celebrating his 100th Super Rugby appearance – joining in the fun as slick handling down the same flank saw Josh Tatupu and Haig Sare combine in a score that extended the lead to 10-0.
Jimmy Cowan's men had yet to even touch possession and when they did earn themselves a kickable penalty, it was pushed to the corner as a signal that there would be amble attacking passages to come.
But even they would not have imagined their first score would take as long as it ultimately did.
The next match points came through Giteau's successive penalty goals and with a quarter of the game passed, the 16-0 lead was beginning to grow at quite a rate.
The soon-to-be Brumbie was beginning to roll out his kicking repertoire as a clip against the grain caused all sorts of bother before his second attempt at the trick had to be seen to be believed. Running to the left and with all Highlanders' defenders turning their feet in the expected direction, Giteau reversed the play to allow Staniforth in for his second.
It would need something of a miracle for the visitors to respond from 23-0 down, but they gave it their all and certainly came out firing following the interval.
First it was impressive winger Ben Smith that began their comeback as slack tackling coupled with strong running saw him cross with the conversion starting them off.
Their task was sizeable but a purple patch that began on 63 minutes gave them all the confidence required to believe victory was possible. Smith was again the provider as he swooped on a loose kick to race untouched to the whitewash before lock Tom Donnelly galloped over to cut the lead to twelve.
But then came what proved the controversial moment of the clash when referee Nathan Pearce adjudged Adam Thomson's offload to unopposed winger Fetu'u Vainikolo forward.
Consolation did eventually come through captain Cowan on the final hooter but the Highlanders will head back to New Zealand with the nagging feeling of what if as the Force celebrated.
Man of the match: The man leaving for Japan proved his worth on Saturday as he crossed for a well-taken brace of tries. Hats off to winger Scott Staniforth, who will in turn tip his cap to provider Matt Giteau.
For Western Force:
Tries: Cross, Staniforth 2, Sare
Con: Giteau 2
Pen: Giteau 3
Tries: Smith 2, Donnelly, Cowan
Con: Bowden 4
Western Force: 15 Drew Mitchell, 14 Scott Staniforth, 13 Ryan Cross, 12 Josh Tatupu, 11 Haig Sare, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Josh Valentine, 8 Tamaiti Horua, 7 David Pocock, 6 Matt Hodgson, 5 Nathan Sharpe (c), 4 Sam Wykes, 3 AJ Whalley, 2 Tai McIsaac, 1 Pek Cowan.
Replacements: 16 Ben Whittaker, 17 Troy Takiari, 18 Tom Hockings, 19 Richard Stanford, 20 Chris O'Young, 21 Junior Pelesasa, 22 Nick Cummins.
Highlanders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Jason Shoemark, 12 Johnny Leota, 11 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 10 Daniel Bowden, 9 Jimmy Cowan (c), 8 George Naoupu, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Hayden Triggs, 3 Clint Newland, 2 David Hall, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Jason Rutledge, 17 Chris King, 18 Josh Bekhuis, 19 Steven Setephano, 20 Sean Romans, 21 Jayden Hayward/Matthew Berquist, 22 Kendrick Lynn.
Referee: Nathan Pearce (Australia)
Touch judges: Matt Goddard (Australia), Stephen Hill (Australia)
TMO: Julian Pritchard (Australia)