The Auckland Blues maintained their outside chance of claiming New Zealand's Super Rugby Aotearoa title with a 32-21 victory over a hard-finishing Otago Highlanders in Dunedin Sunday.
They led 32-16 after 55 minutes and then produced a gritty defence to hold off the desperate Highlanders who controlled the final quarter and threw everything at the visitors.
Blues captain Paddy Tuipulotu summed up the game as "a real nail-biter" and rated it as one of his side's best performances in their late charge for the championship.
"I think it was. Coming down to the last five minutes it was really close points-wise," he said.
"We had to dig in deep with our D (defence) and it was good for us to hang our hat on the D and get the win."
But after disposing of the Highlanders, the Blues now need the Otago club to do them a favour and beat the table-topping Canterbury Crusaders next weekend.
A Crusaders win will give them the title with a week to spare, but an upset Highlanders victory will set up a final-round decider between the Blues and Crusaders at Eden Park.
Following the bonus-point victory against the Highlanders the Blues trail the Crusaders by two points although they have a bye next weekend.
Against the Highlanders they scored four tries in the first half and were left frustrated when denied a fifth after Dalton Papalii galloped 70 metres to the try-line from an intercept.
The try was disallowed after the referee ruled a prone Karl Tu'inukuafe impeded play when Highlanders scrum-half Aaron Smith tripped over him as the Highlanders scrambled to retain possession before the intercept.
The Blues produced a rollicking start with tries to standout backrower Akira Ioane and Finlay Christie in the opening 10 minutes.
Once the Highlanders settled they gained momentum through a Josh Ioane penalty and then a converted try to Ash Dixon off a lineout drive.
A second Ioane penalty put the Highlanders ahead 13-12 although it was to be a short-lived lead.
Two minutes later a Tu'inukuafe turnover resulted in a try to TJ Faiane and after a third Ioane penalty, Ofa Tuungafasi crashed over on the stroke of half-time.
The Blues stretched the lead in the third quarter with a second try to scrum-half Christie and a Barrett penalty.
The Highlanders have a reputation for producing a big finish as they did in their last match when they trailed the Waikato Chiefs 24-0 at one stage before storming home to win 33-31.
But there was to be no fairytale ending this time.
They were camped deep in Blues territory for most of the final quarter but managed only one try to Shannon Frizell.
Tries: Christie 2, Ioane, Faiane, Tu'ungafasi
Cons: Barrett 2
Tries: Dixon, Frizell
Pens: Ioane 3
CRUSADERS vs HURRICANES
The Canterbury Crusaders bounced back from a shock loss last week with a ruthless 32-19 victory over the Waikato Chiefs in Super Rugby Aotearoa Saturday to be on the verge of sealing the title.
Poor discipline by the Crusaders allowed the Chiefs to stay in touch with a string of penalties in the first 60 minutes.
But as they so often do, the Crusaders pulled away in the final quarter, although with a question mark over one of their late tries.
The Super Rugby champions for the past three seasons until the COVID-19 pandemic brought this year's competition to a halt, they need only one more win with two games to play to claim the New Zealand domestic title.
A week ago, when their four-year unbeaten run at home was snapped by the Wellington Hurricanes, there were questions about how the Crusaders would handle defeat.
"We had a real honest review, looked in the mirror and said we didn't front up last week and knew what we were coming up here for," captain Codie Taylor said.
"I'm just really proud we came up here and put on a good show. It was a hell of an arm wrestle and a couple opportunities we took and that's what it's about."
While the Crusaders have played six and won five, the Chiefs have played seven and lost the lot.
"It hurts," captain Sam Cane said, listing a yellow card just before half-time and a disputed second half try as key moments.
"We'll look at those two moments and how we can better, but credit to the Crusaders, it was a tough battle."
The Crusaders outscored the Chiefs five tries to one, but they conceded 13 penalties with Damian McKenzie converting four to keep the Chiefs in touch for 60 minutes.
Tom Sanders and Will Jordan scored the first two tries as the Crusaders raced to a 12-0 lead.
The Chiefs opened their account by targeting a Crusaders strength when they opted for a scrum when awarded a penalty eight metres from the line.
They held their own against the powerful Crusaders pack and Lachlan Boshier burrowed over from close range.
A minute from half-time, Chiefs wing Shaun Stevenson was yellow-carded and from the resulting penalty the Crusaders mounted a lineout drive producing a try to Taylor.
McKenzie landed three penalties to one by Richie Mo'unga in the third quarter as the Chiefs narrowed the margin to 19-20.
But with 20 minutes remaining the Crusaders pulled away.
After several replays the television match official approved a try to Sevu Reece, despite Chiefs' protestations there had been a knock on, and then Leicester Fainga'anuku touched down to seal the outcome.
Pens: McKenzie 4
Tries: Fainga'anuku, Reece, Taylor, Jordan, Sanders
Cons: Mo'unga 2