The Wellington Hurricanes stayed in touch with New Zealand's Super Rugby top table Saturday when a late try by Billy Proctor secured a vital bonus point in their 31-18 victory over the Waikato Chiefs in Wellington.
In a tense second half, the Chiefs, desperate for their first win in the competition, had closed the gap to 24-18 before replacement Proctor came on the field and almost immediately scored the Hurricanes fifth try.
Without the bonus point the Hurricanes would have been out of contention. But with the maximum five points they moved to one behind the second-placed Auckland Blues and three behind the front-running Canterbury Crusaders.
The Crusaders will claim the title if they beat the Otago Highlanders on Sunday while an upset win to the Highlanders would see the competition settled in the final round when the Crusaders play the Blues and the Hurricanes face the Highlanders.
"We knew we had to come into this game and get five points from it and now our fate lies with the Blues and the Highlanders," Hurricanes captain TJ Perenara said, adding a plea for the Highlanders to beat the Crusaders.
"Yea, 100 percent. If the Highlanders get the job done against the Crusaders that helps both us and the Blues. I think most of Wellington and Auckland will be supporting them."
The Hurricanes led 12-3 at half-time on the back of two Peter Umaga-Jensen tries and looked comfortably in control.
But the Chiefs lifted their game in the second half with an early try to Sean Wainui.
Tries to Dane Coles and Kobus van Wyk saw the Hurricanes pull away to 24-13 before the Chiefs came back with a try to Mitch Karpik with a Damian McKenzie conversion and penalty narrowing the margin to two points.
But the Chiefs hopes of a maiden win were dashed by Proctor's try and they end the post COVID-19 competition in last place with eight straight losses although in five matches they picked up a bonus point from losing by seven points or less.
Coach Warren Gatland said he was "disappointed" but praised his side for the effort in what he described as weekly clashes of Test-match intensity.
"Men of less character would have thrown the towel in but these guys haven't done that. They've kept fighting in every game," he said.
There was alarm in the Chiefs ranks midway through the first half when skipper Sam Cane slumped to the ground after his head smacked into Jordie Barrett's hip.
The first officials on the field indicated a possible neck injury, reviving memories of the horrific broken neck Cane suffered in a Test against South Africa two years ago.
But the new All Blacks captain managed to get to his feet and walk from the field.