New Wallabies coach Robbie Deans tipped the Western Force to be genuine Super 14 finals contenders this year after the Crusaders edged to a 12-7 win in a rugby trial match in Melbourne.
Deans is serving one final season as Crusaders coach before taking over the top job in Australian rugby.
The Crusaders, who are once again likely to be the team to beat in the Super 14 competition, trailed for much of the night at Olympic Park before No 8 Nasi Manu scored the match-winning try in the 73rd minute.
"The Force looked really well drilled," said Deans. "They are obviously working hard, conditioning-wise. They were tough and they were physical and I would suggest they mean business this year. They play a good brand of football and if you look back to last year's campaign they were knocking on the door of the playoffs. And that performance there today was significantly better than this time last year so they are going to be a handful."
Deans also got a good look at Matt Giteau, who will settle at five-eighth for the Force this year and is also the leading contender to replace Stephen Larkham in the Wallabies' No 10 jumper.
Giteau set up the Force's try in the 20th minute and was impressive before being rested early in the second half.
Prop AJ Whalley made the initial midfield burst in the build-up to the Force try before passing to Scott Daruda.
The centre got the ball to Giteau, who looked certain to score in the right corner, only to be stopped by a last-ditch tackle from Crusaders' fullback Leon MacDonald.
But Giteau had the composure to slip a clever pass to centre Ryan Cross, who scored the try.
Giteau converted the try from near the sideline.
The Force were deserving 7-0 leaders after having the better of an enterprising first half.
But the Crusaders were right back in the contest only three minutes after the halftime break.
Following a sustained spell of pressure, MacDonald barged over from close range in the right corner.
Flyhalf Steven Brett's conversion attempt was unsuccessful.
The Crusaders finally hit the lead in the 73rd minute when Manu crossed, with the try converted by Hamish Gard.
Backrower Sam Wykes had a chance to steal the match for the Force with the final play of the match, but with the try-line beckoning, he made the wrong decision to toe the ball forward rather than picking it up.
"It was always going to be a battle of strength and conditioning as both teams were getting started," said Force coach John Mitchell. "We got match fitness out of it. Our response to the new rules and our adaptation to them was quite good."
The Crusaders' squad included 10 All Blacks, although five-eighth Dan Carter (calf) and hooker Corey Flynn (thumb) were absentees.
The Force were without Scott Staniforth, Scott Fava and Lachlan MacKay.
The Crusaders open the Super 14 competition on February 15 with a home clash against the Brumbies in Christchurch, while the Force are away to the Sharks in Durban.