PERTH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 08: Matt Hodgson of the Force crosses for a try during the round four Super Rugby match between the Western Force and the Melbourne Rebels at nib Stadium on March 8, 2014 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Dogged defence by the Western Force, reduced to 13 men over the closing stages, saw them hang on for a desperate 31-29 bonus-point win over the Otago Highlanders in their Super 15 clash in Dunedin Saturday.

Ben McCalman and Adam Coleman both copped yellow cards as the Force confronted a late rally from the Highlanders who trailed 31-16 with 20 minutes remaining.

With the Highlanders dominating possession and territory they steadily reduced the gap forcing the Force into desperate defensive measures, including a spear tackle which forced referee Glen Jackson to produce the yellow cards.

But even with a two-man advantage the Highlanders were unable to bridge the gap.

After eight minutes of unsuccessfully battering away at the line, they were rewarded on fulltime when replacement fly-half Hayden Parker scored out wide.

But his conversion attempt which would have seen the match end in a draw, fell short.

Although the Force were on the losing end of the second half, they built enough of a buffer in the first 40 minutes, when they led 21-16 to secure their second win as they backed up from beating the Melbourne Rebels 32-7 a week ago.

"We're playing some good football now, starting the game strong and finishing it off well with 13 men," a relieved Force captain Matt Hodgson said.

The Force, looking to emulate last week's effort when they raced to a 32-0 lead by halftime against the Rebels, had their first points on the board within three minutes.

Hooker Nathan Charles, loitering on the left wing, scored in the corner with Sias Ebersohn adding the conversion.

But they were made to pay for repeated infringements with Highlanders' fly-half Lima Sopoaga landing three penalties in quick succession including a 50-metre (yard) effort to give the Highlanders a 9-7 lead inside 20 minutes.

However, the lead was to change twice more before half-time with Ebersohn putting the Force back in front from a 40-metre intercept try which he also converted.

The Highlanders, who had one win from two outings going into the match, responded with a try to Shaun Treeby who snapped up an Aaron Smith chip kick from a scrum close to the line.

Sopoaga's conversion had the Highlanders in front 16-14 before McCalman crashed over for a try, converted by Ebersohn, for the Force to lead at half-time.

A penalty early in the second half to Ebersohn, who also converted the bonus-point try by Junior Rasolea pushed the Force out to a 31-16 lead.

Malakai Fekitoa and Parker scored two late tries for the Highlanders with Sopoaga adding a fourth penalty.

The Force return to Perth to play the defending champion Waikato Chiefs next week while the Highlanders remain at home to face the Wellington Hurricanes. – AFP