April 22, 2023
The Western Force have produced their best first-half performance of the Super Rugby Pacific season to secure a 30-17 upset win over the Highlanders in front of 8293 fans at HBF Park.
The Force ran in three first-half tries to lead 24-3 at the break of Saturday night's match, and they withheld a short-lived second-half fightback to secure the vital victory.
It was just the second win for an Australian team against New Zealand opposition from 15 trans-Tasman clashes this season, with the other a Brumbies victory over the Blues in Melbourne.
The result snapped a four-match losing run and catapulted the Force (3-5) from 11th to equal eighth on the ladder with six matches remaining.
It also meant the Force are a perfect three from three at home this season.
The Force's injury curse struck again after just 48 seconds, with flanker Ollie Callan injuring his neck while making a tackle.
Play was halted for several minutes while medical staff assessed Callan before taking him off on a stretcher.
Force winger Toni Pulu set up the first try in the fifth minute when his fast break allowed Bryce Hegarty to cross.
But Pulu's night was over in the 13th minute due to concussion when his head slammed into the turn after being brought down in a tackle.
The Highlanders were down to 13 men when lock Pari Pari Parkinson and prop Ethan de Groot were shown yellow cards within the space of a minute.
The Force were frustrated for much of the next 10 minutes as the Highlanders held on, but a series of swift passes allowed winger Manasa Mataele to burst over in the 31st minute.
The home side were awarded a penalty try shortly before halftime, giving the Force a 21-point lead at the break.
The Highlanders came out firing in the second half, with tries to Connor Garden-Bachop and Andrew Makalio either side of a yellow card to Force hooker Tom Horton.
The damage would have been even more if it wasn't for Mataele, who produced a brilliant try saver by holding up Highlanders No.8 Marino Mikaele-Tu'u over the line.
Hegarty helped settle the Force with a penalty that gave them a 27-17 lead in the 62nd minute, and it became a war of attrition after that as players from both sides emptied their tanks on the field.
With the ball kept in play for long periods, players started struggling to get up and down the ground, leading to some exciting line breaks against tired and disorganised defences.
The Force won a vital scrum penalty in the dying minutes to ice the win.