The Hurricanes gave the Stormers the perfect motivation to finish top as they scored a controversial try after the hooter to beat the Chiefs 28-25 in Wellington on Friday night.
It was the perfect result for South Africa and the Stormers' hopes of topping the log, as while the Chiefs come away with one bonus point from the game, they are just two points ahead of the Stormers, who face the lowly Melbourne Rebels on Saturday.
But while it was good news on the one front, it did complicate another front as the Canes now temporarily move into fourth place, meaning both the Sharks (7th) and Bulls (6th) are likely to need wins before the weekend is out to ensure they stay in the play-off race.
The winning try came a full four minutes after the hooter, after the Canes had taken the ball through more than 20 phases, only to have hooker Dane Coles go close, and referee Jonathan Kaplan stop play and refer it to television referee Mike Fraser.
It was such a crucial decision, one that could have gone either way, and there would have been a good argument for either side as the ball not only looked as if it could have been short, but the line wasn’t visible and defender Tawera Kerr-Barlow looked as if he had slipped a hand under the ball in the same movement.
In fact, if Fraser had said the TMO decision was inconclusive, there would have been some aaahs, but most rugby fans would have accepted that technology would not have made the result clear in this case.
But Fraser did make the call, and what a big call it was, ensuring that the Hurricanes still have a lifeline, and that the Chiefs may not finish top. It could be a decision that changes the entire face of the playoffs in the long run.
Having said that, it was a great game of rugby as both sides played positively and looked to move the ball on every occasion, showing their desperation for the victory.
It was impossible to choose a favourite, as the score moved from one side to the other, with the Chiefs looking to have done enough in the last few minutes to warrant a victory before the Canes last-gasp surge.
It was the Chiefs who opened the scoring, but not without controversy, as halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow scooted around a ruck from close range to score, although his opposite number Chris Eaton looked to be impeded by referee Jonathan Kaplan.
Kaplan decided the try would stand as Eaton wouldn’t have got to the player, but you could understand how aggrieved the Canes players were after the score.
If it looked as if it would affect the home side, it didn’t. The incident just hardened their resolve as they gave the Chiefs as good as they received.
A Beauden Barrett penalty put them on the board, before a breakout, which started in their own 22-metre area by Barrett and Conrad Smith, took the ball all the way to the Chiefs line, where recycled ball was sent wide for an easy run-in for All Black Julian Savea.
Savea added his name to the scoresheet shortly afterwards for a second try, this time a pick-and-drive from close range.
The Hurricanes would have felt further aggrieved as they lost prop Ben May for an alleged tip tackle on Sonny Bill Williams, even though on replays it seemed there was nothing wrong with the tackle.
Still, it became costly as first Aaron Cruden grabbed a penalty to bring his team within range, before big Ben Tameifuna forced his way over the line to bring the scores level just before the break.
Barrett had the final say of the half however, as he slotted a penalty to give his side an 18-15 lead at halftime.
TIGHTER SECOND HALF
The second half was a lot tighter though, with Cruden making the first move to settle matters as the Hurricanes tried an inside ball to Savea which was easily picked off by Cruden for the intercept, and the flyhalf had a simple 50-metre run-in for the score to put his side ahead.
Barrett managed to cut the deficit to one with a long-range penalty, but Cruden took advantage of a scrum infringement a short while later to leave the score at 25-21 with time running out.
And as the clock counted down, the Canes looked as if they had tried hard, but weren’t quite going to make it, until the last desperate surge.
The Chiefs infringed several times in trying to slow the ball down, and were penalised by Kaplan, with the momentum taking the Canes up to the line where Coles went over from close range to leave it hanging on a TMO call.
And when the call was made, it would be difficult to say if there was a bigger cheer in Wellington or Cape Town, as the Stormers now have a home final in their sights, should they win their final game at Newlands on Saturday.
For the other sides all permutations still remain open, but don’t be surprised if it changes several times before the end of the weekend.
Hurricanes – Tries: Julian Savea (2), Dan Coles. Conversion: Beauden Barrett (2). Penalties: Barrett (3).
Chiefs – Tries: Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Ben Tameifuna, Aaron Cruden. Conversions: Cruden (3). Penalty: Cruden.