Late penalty denies Highlanders
Western Force fullback Jayden Hayward came back to haunt his former club the Highlanders on Saturday night, landing a last-minute penalty to earn a nail-biting 19-18 victory in the basement battle at nib Stadium.
But the hosts enjoyed the ascendancy for the first hour, bagged the game's only try through Sias Ebersohn and were good value for their win.
For the hapless Highlanders, meanwhile, the defeat extended their winless run against the Force to five games and leaves them looking all but certain to collect this year's wooden spoon.
The lack of confidence in the ranks of both sides was evident early as the Force adopted a safety-first kicking game, while the Highlanders' attempts to take a more expansive approach were largely nullified by a string of unforced handling errors.
But there were occasional flashes of quality in the opening period and the first was on 17 minutes from Hayward.
Clearly keen to make a point to his ex-employers, the 25-year-old had his searing 17th-minute break eventually halted by opposite number Ben Smith just short of the line, but the ball was quickly recycled and Ebersohn was on hand to stretch over in the corner and claim his first try for the club.
Hayward duly landed a tricky conversion before the Highlanders got themselves on the board courtesy of a Hayden Parker penalty after the Force had wandered off-side in midfield.
The rival kickers then exchanged another penalty apiece to move the score along to 10-6, but the momentum remained very much with the hosts who piled on the pressure as half-time approached.
As has so often been the case this term, however, they failed to turn that dominance into points as both Pat Dellit and Chris Alcock were held up centimetres from the line and Hayward then blotted his copybook by missing a straightforward penalty shot right on the siren.
Hayward did rediscover his goal-kicking range twice early in the second-half, but Highlanders replacement Colin Slade matched him kick for kick to leave the scoreline reading 16-12 in the Force's favour and the game still in the balance heading into the final quarter.
The momentum then seemed to swing in favour of the men from Otago when Force half-back Alby Mathewson was rather harshly yellow-carded for rushing up on Fumiaki Tanaka even though the Japanese half-back appeared to have had a hand on the ball.
But the Force's defence has been one of their strengths this season and having somehow foiled Ma'a Nonu from close range, they continued to stand firm as the Highlanders mounted their first period of sustained pressure, restricting the visitors to a 70th-minute penalty from Slade.
The injury-plagued All Blacks fly-half then failed with another attempted three-pointer on 74 minutes but looked to have made amends when he did find the target with a longer-range effort moments later to put his side ahead for the first time in the game.
Yet the Force were not to be denied and when Maritino Nemani caught Hayward with a late tackle 24 metres out, the Force man held his nerve to convert and seal the win that takes them six points clear of the bottom.
Scorers: Western Force 19 (Sias Ebersohn try; Jayden Hayward con, 4 pen) Highlanders 18 (Hayden Parker 2 pen; Colin Slade 4 pen). HT: 10-6