It’s onwards and upwards for the Western Force – but only after a few days of stewing over an opportunity lost.

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While proud of his trailblazing outfit, coach Tim Sampson couldn’t disguise his despair after the Force bowed out of the Super Rugby AU title race with a tense 21-9 qualifying loss to the Brumbies in Canberra.

Despite being reduced to 14 men for 20 minutes after a red card to winger Toni Pulu after the halftime siren, the Force remained within a converted try of victory until five minutes from fulltime on Saturday night.

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“There’s genuine disappointment there because probably when we reflect on that it was one that we let slip because we didn’t fire too many shots,” Sampson said.

“It’s going to sting, no doubt. I think the guys were pretty flat.

“The disappointment will be there for a few days, no doubt. It will probably hit over the next couple of days.”

Rather than blame Pulu’s dismissal for a no-arms tackle to the head of Brumbies centre Irae Simone for the defeat, Sampson said the resolve the Force showed while playing a man short was “something to take out” of the gritty performance.

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“The scoreboard went 5-3 in favour of the Brumbies so that was a good period for us. Unfortunately there at the end it slipped away from us,” Sampson said.

“I don’t think that 20-minute period was a crucial period. It might have sucked a bit of energy out of us but looking at our the guys finished I thought we were in a pretty good spot.

“It shows where this group’s at. There’s a lot of ticker there. They’re a tough bunch. To keep the Brumbies to not too many tries is a bloody good effort.”

Sampson’s cosmopolitan line-up, featuring players from six different countries, was the first Force team in the club’s 16-year history to make a Super Rugby finals series.

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Despite falling short of a place in the title decider, the Force are feeling buoyed ahead of the five-week trans-Tasman competition.

They face the Chiefs and Highlanders in Perth in the first two rounds and can’t wait to get stuck into their tournament opener on May 15.

“The competition is starting pretty soon after that so we’re going to have to get back on the horse pretty quickly,” Sampson said.

“It’s fantastic this year that we get to play against the New Zealand teams, which our club hasn’t done for a number of years.

“So we’re excited about our first two games at home. We’re thrilled.”

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