A superb performance from Matt Giteau nabbed his side a 23-23 draw against the Crusaders at AMI Stadium on Saturday.
With the pack ruling the loose and Stephen Brett impreious with the ball in hand, the home side ran in three terrific tries in the first half to put the game seemingly out of reach of the visitors but another marvellous performance from Giteau brought the Force back into the game and set up a tense finale.
It was the archetypal game of two halves - two fly-halves as well as the periods of time. Stephen Brett has had a miserable season at full-back where he is clearly uncomfortable but here he was, reinstated into the front line and running the show.
Then came the second half, and Matt Giteau, always stepping, always running, always with an extra trick up his sleeve. His side was 23-9 down but two moments of genius and two super goal-kicks restored parity to proceedings.
Theory is that Brett will one day be All Blacks pivot, in which case we had a future Australia v All Blacks fly-half clash here. Going on this basis, exciting times are ahead for whichever city is lucky enough to get the wandering Bledisloe match.
We had the Crusaders of old in the first half. The ball was shifted from left to right with nonchalance, forward intermingling with backs and offloading or passing with panache and precision. The Force couldn't get a look-in despite Giteau and co's best efforts.
Three penalties were won in the opening ten minutes, all for offside as the retreating Force defence failed to cope with the forward movement of the Crusaders' attack. Brett missed two, but nailed the third from 40m. Giteau responded in kind a minute later after an offside for the Crusaders, but then came a blitz.
Isaac Ross scored the first try, with Brett's pinpoint passing creating ample space for his attackers to create go-forward ball twice on the right and then swinging it back left, where Ross and two other forwards created a five on two overlap.
The second try three minutes later came as a result of Brett's quick thinking, as his forwards pinched a line-out and Brett's grubber through towards a goalpost had Drew Mitchell at sixes and sevens. Tim Bateman picked up the loose ball and crashed over under the sticks. Brett made it 15-3 with the extras.
Giteau responded with a penalty but the Crusaders were irrepressible. Brett scythed through the Force defence at one point to remind us all that he was the apprentice to Dan carter's sorcery for a couple of years.
The third try was the best of the lot, going through ten pairs of hands and two rucks before Ryan Crotty once again exploited an overlap on the left to score in the corner. Brett again couldn't find his range - his profligacy ended up being more costly than it looked.
The second half was different, very different. The Force forwards nudged a little harder, the defence pressed a little further up. Giteau's stepping started to take him further through the half-gaps and with more support. The visitors just raised themsevles a little.
Giteau reduced the arrears to 20-9 with a penalty, but Brett restored the 14-point lead five minutes later.
Then Giteau took the ball off the back of a line-out and produced a mesmerising run, outside, inside and outside again before flipping a long floated pass out to Haig Sare, whose toughest job at the finish was making sure he didn't overbalance into touch. Giteau landed a wonderful touchline conversion to bring the Force to within seven.
Twice the Crusaders could have regained their two-score lead. Ryan Crotty threw a grotty pass to ruin a three-man overlap, then Colin Slade was thumped into touch by Mitchell as he raced for the corner, a magnificent tackle.
Leon MacDonald was sin-binned for a mid-air tackle on James O'connor and the youngster got his revenge five minutes later as the All Black watched on helplessly, when Giteau stepped inside a defender and popped an inside offload perfectly for O'Connor to scamper through. Giteau levelled the scores with the conversion - five from five for him, three from six for Brett. A telling statistic: the youngster is still a finishing touch short of the real deal.
Man of the match: We'll give a joint one to the two showpiece players of what was an excellent game: Stephen Brett and Matt Giteau.
For the Crusaders:
Tries: Ross, Bateman, Crotty
Pens: Brett 2
For the Force:
Tries: Sare, O'Connor
Cons: Giteau 2
Pens: Giteau 3
Yellow card: MacDonald (64, Crusaders, dangerous tackle)
Crusaders: 15 Leon MacDonald, 14 Adam Whitelock, 13 Tim Bateman, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Colin Slade, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Kahn Fotuali'i, 8 Thomas Waldrom, 7 George Whitelock, 6 Kieran Read (c), 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Bronson Murray, 2 Jason Macdonald, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Dan Perrin, 17 Owen Franks, 18 Ross Filipo, 19 Nasi Manu, 20 Tyson Keats, 21 Hamish Gard, 22 Blair Cook.
Force: 15 Drew Mitchell, 14 Nick Cummins, 13 Ryan Cross, 12 James O'Connor, 11 Cameron Shepherd, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Josh Valentine, 8 Tamaiti Horua, 7 David Pocock, 6 Richard Stanford, 5 Nathan Sharpe (c), 4 David Pusey, 3 Ben Castle, 2 Tai McIsaac, 1 Pek Cowan.
Replacements: 16 Luke Holmes, 17 AJ Whalley, 18 Tom Hockings, 19 Matt Hodgson, 20 Chris O'Young, 21 Junior Pelesasa, 22 Haig Sare.
Referee: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Touch judges: Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Willie Roos (South Africa)
Television match official: Kane McBride (New Zealand)
Assessor: Greg Cooper (New Zealand)