THE MUCH-IMPROVED WESTERN Force reached the Super Rugby AU finals on Friday after an upset 30-27 victory over league leaders Queensland Reds at HBF Park.
Former Ireland international Rob Kearney was forced to pull out of the game due to injury but the Force came back from a 14-point early hole and were led by Englishman Jordan Olowofela, who scored three of his team’s four tries to inflict the Reds’ first defeat of the season.
The stirring fightback by the Force, who were winless last season in their return to the competition, helped secure a Super Rugby finals berth for the first time in the franchise’s 16-year history.
They locked in third spot on the five-team ladder and booked a clash with the ACT Brumbies in next week’s qualifying final, which is ostensibly a semi-final.
It means fourth-placed Melbourne Rebels’ contest with NSW Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday will be essentially a dead rubber.
Force celebrate. Source: AAP/PA Images
“Feels awesome, it’s been a long time coming,” Force captain Kyle Godwin said.
Even though their seven-game winning streak ended, the Reds had already locked up top spot and a home grand final.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game but credit to the Force who really deserved it,” Reds captain Liam Wright said.
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It capped a dramatic day in the western city, which was ordered into a snap three-day lockdown starting at midnight Friday after a man tested positive for Covid-19 after emerging from hotel quarantine.
Fans were still allowed at HBF Park but masks were compulsory for those over 12 years of age from 6pm — 15 minutes after the game started.
The Force had stormed into finals calculations after consecutive thrilling one-point victories but needed to lift their intensity further to upset the league leaders.
An overzealous Tevita Kuridrani, however, received a yellow card in the early stages and was sent to the sin bin for 10 minutes after a crude tip-tackle.
The Reds capitalised with a try through Hunter Paisami but the Force responded immediately after a spectacular intercept try from Olowofela.
The free-flowing game suited the Reds who expertly pierced the Force’s dour defence with tries to Taniela Tupou and Filipo Daugunu.
The Reds, who resisted the temptation to rest players, appeared set to blow the game open until the Force hit back with a try through Feleti Kaitu’u to reduce the deficit to six points at half-time.