The Rebels grabbed a thrilling 31-30 win over the Highlanders in Melbourne on Sunday but the game’s only losers were watching on a big screen half a continent away.
Western Force players gathered together to watch the game in Perth knowing that a Rebels win by more than seven points would send the WA team into eighth and into the quarterfinals ahead of the Highlanders.
For four glorious minutes – between the 56th and 60th minutes – the Rebels led by eight points after two stunning tries, but the Kiwis nudged ahead again before another try to Young Tonumaipea put the Rebels, who were out of finals contention, back in front for the last time.
The Rebels had a penalty after the siren and could have opted to kick for a lineout in an attempt to keep the Force afloat – a converted try would have been enough – but Matt Toomua, who missed two of five conversion attempts, banked the win by kicking the ball dead.
That decision divided fans with some thinking they should have fought until the end in a bid to get a fourth Australian team into the last eight alongside the Brumbies, Reds and Waratahs and others saying it was fair game.
The Highlanders’ one point loss was enough to secure a bonus point to beat out the Force on points differential and set up a clash with the Blues at Eden Park on Saturday.
“Your heart goes out to players and supporters over in Western Australia,” said Andrew Mehrtens on the Stan commentary. “It doesn’t take away from a superb win they finished their season off with last night and they get to continue their farewell for Tim Sampson and some of the senior players.”
The Force players rode the rollercoaster and were off their feet as first Nick Jooste and then Lukas Ripley scored stunning tries to bring up an eight-point lead.
“We would have loved to have put a few more points on to get the Force into the final, but finishing on a high is what we were looking forward to doing,” said Rebels’ flanker Brad Wilkin.
“We spoke about going out this season on the front foot and putting in a performance we could be proud of and something to build on going forward.”
Rebels skipper Michael Wells, who has fronted up with brutal honesty in plenty of post-match press conferences this season, was pleased with the way his team put it together at the end of a frustrating season.
“We’ve always know we had the potential, it’s just bittersweet knowing we did it in the last game,” said Wells. “If we hit it a few rounds earlier or in certain tight positions we’d probably be playing next week.”
Wells said he was encouraged that several young players have gotten the experience under their belts to make a stronger challenge in 2023 but the side would look back at key moments.
“The Drua just before halftime they were 14 men, they scored and ended up winning that game, the Chiefs game a few weeks ago came down to the last play. We get two more wins we’re probably playing next weekend. There’s been some really good positives but there have been a few things we need to take away and learn from.”
Highlanders skipper Aaron Smith also used the word “bittersweet” to describe the game – but ultimately a narrow loss made no difference to his side.
“We made it in,” Smith said. “At the start of the season they say if playing in the playoffs you’d take that. We scraped in but we have to put all our energy and focus into getting better for next week and we know we have a big game in Auckland and it’s pretty exciting.”
Although the Blues will enter that game next Saturday afternoon (5.05pm AEST) on the back of a club record 13 wins, Smith said the Highlanders are “in total control of what we can do and the things we need to clean up.”
“We know what we’re up against next week and as a rugby player that’s why you play – we’ve got the Blues and bring it on,” said Smith. “Our guys should be bloody excited to go to Auckland, play at Eden Park against the best team and see what we can do.”