The Force has claimed an emotional victory over the Melbourne Rebels, with a 31-22 win in what could be their final face-off.
Pre and post-match the teams took the chance to show their unity, walking onto the field side by side and joining in a huddle after the full-time whistle, addressed by RUPA director and Force veteran Matt Hodgson, who emphasised the players' view that Audtralian Super Rugby is stronger with five teams.
Between those moments, though, it was the Force that looked a step above after a rusty start, piling on 17 second-half points for a vital win on their home deck.
Fittingly, the match followed the pattern of many of its predecessors between the pair, with a dose of grit, a smattering of attacking brilliance sneaking through and a growing emotional fire throughout.
Rebels back Reece Hodge drew first blood with a penalty in the third minute, but it was the Force that controlled proceedings for much of the night.
That one-man deficit didn’t hurt the Force, though, with centre Billy Meakes finishing off a slick set piece play, going through Richard Hardwick and Michael Ruru before hitting Meakes in a gap.
Melbourne’s wingers have been starved of opportunities in a dismal season but a turnover gave the Rebels the chance to put speedster Marika Koroibete in space for his first of a double.
Those opportunities were few and far between for the Rebels, as the Force pushed their way over the advantage line, while the Rebels were often found scrambling to make it into the Force's half.
Adam Coleman’s elevation to the captaincy had little effect on his game, the lock influential in defence, racking up 10 tackles in the first half hour and 14 overall, while hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau only enhanced his status as the in-form Australian hooker.
Coleman showed flexibility in his mammoth frame diving under Mitch Inman for a try that put the Orce back in front as well, after minutes of the Force being camped in Rebels territory.
Koroibete’s second came from a Mitch Inman offload just in the nick of time, a score that left Force centre Curtis Rona lamenting what he described as one of his side’s worst halves of the year.
The Force came out firing after the break, with 17 points in 13 minutes, breaking the game open for the home side.
A Peter Grant penalty in just the 42nd minute was followed by a pick-and-go Richard Hardwick try and a slippery effort from Chance Peni that took the margin to 16 points.
Colby Faingaa ensured the Force wouldn’t have the final say on the game, with a try of his own in the 59th minute keeping the Rebels alive, reward for some hard-work of a forward pack led by the tireless no. 8 Amanaki Mafi.
Emotions ran high as the minutes ticked down, a reminder of the stakes for each side.
The Force's flurry of scores, though, was soured by injuries to prop Jermaine Ainsley and backrower Isi Naisarani, both of whom were influential before being forced off, while Heath Tessmann also had an early exit.
The Force stay in Perth next week before hosting the Waratahs next Saturday night, while the Rebels take on the Jaguares.
Tries: Meakes, Coleman, Hardwick, Peni
Cons: Grant 4
Tries: Koroibete 2, Faingaa