The Highlanders' chase for a Super 14 semi-final came to an end with an 18-11 defeat to the Stormers in Dunedin on Friday.
It was a far more spirited showing from the visitors than we've become accustomed to over the past couple of weeks, full of perseverance.
For the home side it was a bad defeat, after an excellent collective effort and one moment of magic from the excellent Israel Dagg at full-back ought to have given them the platform to kick on and win.
The Highlanders led 6-0 at half-time, a low scoreline not indicative of the quality on offer but a reflection of the defensive efforts from both teams. Endeavour and execution was not at a premium, open space and missed tackles were.
Only Jason Shoemark and Fetu'u Vainikolo found holes to burst through for the home side, and both were swamped with covering tacklers ten metres later. The Stormers worked some slightly better positions in attack but still resorted to the boot too often in promising positions.
They also coughed up ball three metres from the Highlanders line no less than four times in the match, an element of non-control that must be addressed if this team is to start scoring again. Defence is not a problem, but there are other games where letting those scoring positions go will be too costly.
Peter Grant had a chance to give his side the early lead but pushed it badly right, after his team's line-out had stolen ball and given good field position.
Matt Berquist made no such mess of the two goal opportunities he was given, as the Stormers tested the patience of Matt Goddard - excellent on the day - by continually going off their feet.
Otherwise the first half was rugged, tight and even. Both sides lost far too much line-out ball - three apiece by the end of the half - and neither gave away anything in defence. Only the goal-kicking separated the sides.
The second half stayed as rugged as the first, but opened up four minutes in when Sireli Naqelevuki blew off the cobwebs that have been restricting him all season and scored the opening try.
A grubber from the Highlanders on attack rebounded off a stray boot. Grant picked the ball up, offloaded to the big Fijian, who opened up those long legs and strode away from the cover to score. Grant missed the conversion, handing the kicking duties to Willem de Waal.
De Waal's first kick, five minutes later for a penalty after Alando Soakai had slipped his bind, gave his side the lead.
The Highlanders responded with the move of the game when Dagg, who had spent most of the match picking up stray missiles from the boots of De Waal and Grant and showing all manner of skills, came into the line, stepped Dylan Des Fountain, then sent a wonderful pass out wide to Ben Smith for the try. Berquist couldn't convert, but the Highlanders had the lead at 11-8.
Back came the visitors, with Naqelevuki and Grant making a break through the middle and earning an equalising penalty.
Control swung back to the Stormers, who spent 6 minutes camped in their opposition 22 running phase after phase before finally, having sucked in enough defenders, Conrad Jantjes sent a wide pass out to Grant for the winning score.
The Highlanders, asked to respond, found the Stormers defence impregnable as it has been most of the season. At one point, the Highlanders forwards ran 12 phases at the Stormers' pack's fringe but were smashed backwards every time. The speed of organisation among the white-clad loose trio, centres and locks was magnificent.
The same could not have been said of the centres minutes later, when Jason Shoemark broke clean through, but back chased Andries Bekker and seized upon Shoemark's brief indecision to hammer the centre into the ground - the Highlanders' hopes of saving the game went with him.
Man of the match: The powerhouse of the Stormers' forward effort, Andries Bekker. Brought back bulk, energy and snarl to the team that was probably the key factor in the win (not to mention the game-saving tackle he made chasing back on Jason Shoemark in the final minute).
For the Highlanders:
Pens: Berquist 2
For the Stormers:
Tries: Naqelevuki, Grant
Con: De Waal
Pens: De Waal 2
Highlanders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Jason Shoemark, 12 Daniel Bowden, 11 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 10 Mathew Berquist, 9 Jimmy Cowan (c), 8 George Naoupu, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Hayden Triggs, 3 Clint Newland, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 David Hall, 17 Chris King, 18 Josh Bekhuis, 19 Steven Setephano, 20 Sean Romans, 21 Johnny Leota, 22 Kendrick Lynn.
Stormers: 15 Conrad Jantjes, 14 Gcobani Bobo, 13 Dylan Des Fountain, 12 Peter Grant, 11 Sireli Naqelevuki, 10 Willem de Waal, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Luke Watson, 7 Duane Vermeulen, 6 Schalk Burger (c), 5 Andries Bekker, 4 AJ Venter, 3 Brock Harris, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 JD Moller.
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Wicus Blaauw, 18 Hilton Lobberts, 19 Pieter Louw, 20 Ricky Januarie, 21 Morgan Newman, 22 Liam Bax.
Referee: Matt Goddard (Australia)
Touch judges: Keith Brown (New Zealand), Josh Noonan (New Zealand)
TMO: Kane McBride (New Zealand)