Zack Holmes celebrates his bonus point-sealing try against the Force. Photo: Getty Images
The ACT Brumbies are in the box seat to break their finals hoodoo but they were forced into a nervous battle with a spirited Western Force side in Perth tonight.
After a clinical first half which yielded four unanswered tries, the Brumbies were forced into a dogfight as the Force tried to send Nathan Sharpe out a winner in the last home game of his career.
But Jake White's young men held on for a 28-17 win and they now need just six points from their remaining two games to clinch the top spot in the Australian conference.
The defending champion Queensland Reds momentarily had the guaranteed finals berth after their bonus-point win on Friday night.
The Reds are on 49 points while the Brumbies sit five points clear on 54.
The maximum points the Reds can finish with is 59 while the Brumbies could move to 64 if they get two more bonus-point triumphs.
It will be a heated and intense race to the finals in the last two weeks of the campaign.
The Brumbies could lose one game and still make the finals, if they manage to secure a bonus point.
But they will be determined to ensure they control their finals fate and win both games against the NSW Waratahs and Auckland Blues.
The Waratahs could be the play-off pest in the Australian conference with NSW to take on the Brumbies on Saturday and the Reds in the last regular season round.
"We lost a bit of momentum early in the second half, the Force's tempo really stung us," Brumbies captain Ben Mowen said.
"The way we played in the first half is what we're capable of, we've just got to make sure we do that consistently to finish the season."
The loss wasn't the way Force and Wallabies great Sharpe was supposed to end his home-ground career.
Of course he still has two games left before he calls time on his Super Rugby playing days.
But the veteran of more than 160 Super Rugby games and 100 Tests deserved better.
Force captain David Pocock lamented his side's slow start and admitted it cost his team the game.
"We gave them too much possession and territory in the first half, credit to the Brumbies on the way they started," Pocock said.
"But that was very disappointing from us, we shouldn't have let it get to that."
Any thoughts the three-week international break would halt the young Brumbies' momentum were dispelled within the first two minutes.
With their finals hopes on the line, the Brumbies exploded into the match with their bubbling enthusiasm.
Robbie Coleman went within inches of the line before Jesse Mogg sliced the Force defence open to score the first try of the match.
They drained all the emotion and fire out of the Force and its desire to win for Sharpe.
Jake White's men had 80 per cent of possession for the first 11 minutes and the Force defence cracked again when prop Ben Alexander barged over from close range.
The bonus try came when Zack Holmes pushed through some disgraceful Force defence for an easy try just before half-time.
The Force returned from the break with renewed fire.
Winger Nick Cummins, who was the Force's best in the first half, barged over in the corner to cut the margin back to 17 points.
Sharpe must have said something at half-time to inspire his teammates because just seven minutes later Cummins had his second and the Brumbies' lead was trimmed to 12 points.
Holmes stemmed the leaking points with a penalty, but it did little to end the Force's resurgence.
Lock Toby Lynn scored the Force's third try to set up a tense final 11 minutes.
But the Brumbies held on for an 11-point win as they continue their impressive resurgence.
ACT BRUMBIES 28 (Jesse Mogg, Ben Alexander, Henry Speight, Zack Holmes tries; Zack Holmes conv, 2 pen goals) bt WESTERN FORCE 17 (Nick Cummins 2, Toby Lynn tries; Dave Harvey conv) at nib Stadium. Referee: Ian Smith. Crowd: 13,571.