Jeremy Thrush has made a shock return from retirement to lead the Western Force to a pulsating 34-27 Super Rugby Pacific win over the Melbourne Rebels at Perth’s HBF Park.
Thrush retired at the end of last season, but the former All Blacks lock was sent an SOS by new Force coach Simon Cron after Wallaby Izack Rodda was struck down by another foot fracture.
The Rebels were on track for victory after opening up a 24-10 lead late in the first half of Saturday night’s match.
But the introduction of Thrush early in the second half marked the start of the Force’s comeback.
The Force hit the lead in the 64th minute following tries to Tom Horton and Hamish Stewart, only for Rebels star Reece Hodge to level the scores three minutes later with a 52-metre penalty.
But Thrush was having none of it.
With blood streaming out of his nose from an earlier incident, the 37-year-old sucked in deep breaths and barged over the line in the 72nd minute to score what ended up being the match-winning try.
It sealed a dream comeback that came totally out of the blue.
The Force suffered two blows before the match, with Wallabies hooker Folau Fainga’a (achilles) and star winger Manasa Mataele late withdrawals.
Hooker Feleti Kaitu’u went off injured late in the first half in another blow for the Force.
The turf looked shabby in parts after the venue hosted a Harry Styles concert five days earlier, and the Force’s skill level matched the aesthetics early in the match.
A series of ball handling errors and broken tackles gave the Rebels the early edge, with the visitors running in three first-half tries.
Rebels flyhalf Carter Gordon scored the first try in the 16th minute when he intercepted a loose pass from Ian Prior and ran 50 metres untouched to the line.
Former Force scrumhalf Ryan Louwrens made it 15-3 when he dived over the line after the ball had bobbled out of a collapsed rolling maul.
The Force hit back through a try from Tom Robertson in the 33rd minute courtesy of a nice little break from Toni Pulu.
But a mistake from flyhalf Bryce Hegarty straight after the restart – when he kicked it out for touch despite the Force passing it back into their own 22m – gave the Rebels the field position they needed for their third.
Stand-in Rebels captain Brad Wilkin was the beneficiary, with his try giving the visitors a 24-13 lead at half-time.
The complexion of the game changed in the 50th minute when Rebels winger Lachlan Anderson was yellow carded for an obvious foul as the Force were close to scoring a try.
Thrush hit the next ruck hard, and Horton barged over for a try that reduced the margin to just four points.
The Force hit the lead in the 64th minute when Stewart touched down after a successful rolling maul.
Hodge’s penalty momentarily halted the Force’s momentum, before Thrush stepped up to the plate to score the winner.