Otago’s Highlanders came from behind to beat the Melbourne Rebels 43-37 at Forsyth-Barr Stadium in Dunedin to seal a sixth place finish of the regular season.
The Highlanders were either level or trailed on the scoreboard until the 66th minute when they took the lead for the first time.
Rebels pivot Reece Hodge delivered an exceptional perfomance by scoring 29 of the Rebels 37 points through a hat-trick of tries, three conversions and two penalties.
The Highlanders will have to wait until the end of the round to find out who they will be playing next weekend while the Rebels losing bonus point keeps them in contention for a first ever place in the play offs.
The Rebels losing bonus point effectively ends the Brumbies slim finals chances but the Melbourne side need the Jaguares to beat or draw with the Sharks if they are to earn their first ever place in the play offs.
Should the Sharks lose or draw their match to the Jaguares the Rebels will face a Qualifying Final against the Crusaders in Christchurch next weekend.
In the match, the Rebels were yet again on the board early when some pressure off a Highlanders box kick turned into a penalty to the Rebels, straight in front and 30 metres out.
Reece Hodge (29 individual points for the match) nailed the penalty conversion, as the Rebels raced to a 3-nil lead after two minutes.
The home side would answer straight back in the sixth minute when Amanaki Mafi was called for not rolling away deep in the Highlanders’ attacking territory.
Lima Sopoaga added the three points to level the scores at 3-all.
The next play, the Rebels were back on the attack, winning a penalty and kicking for the corner. A strong drive from the line out, saw Mafi barge over for the try to give the visitors the lead at 8-3.
Hodge made it 10-3 after 10 minutes.
The Rebels were dealt a blow with prop Fereti Sa’aga suffering a concussion off the restart. He would be replaced permanently by reserve prop Tetera Faulkner, with the medical staff ruling Sa’aga out of the game before completing a HIA test.
It wouldn’t halt the Rebels’ charge, when some brilliant play between Marika Koroibete, Jack Maddocks and Hodge resulted in a try to the latter down the short-side at the 18-minute mark.
Hodge added the extra points, with the Rebels pushing the lead out to 17-3 after 20 minutes.
Further adversity was to hit the Rebels when scrumhalf Michael Ruru was ruled to have intentionally tripped Sopoaga off a kick-return, and was sent to the bin for 10 minutes.
The home side was able to capitalise when a turnover in open play saw the ball land in Waisake Naholo’s hands. The dashing winger showed a clean set of wheels to take the ball 60 metres – burning off Maddocks and Billy Meakes in the process – to cross at the 26-minute mark.
Sopoaga added the points after 28 minutes, with the Rebels lead cut to 17-10.
In the 33rd minute, the Highlanders were back level when Mafi was stripped of the ball and allowed Kayne Hammington to cross next to the posts.
Sopoaga’s conversion made it 17-all, with the Highlanders on the front foot.
But Hodge came to the rescue again with a charge-down and collect off fullback, Josh Iaone as the flyhalf strolled under the posts in the 35th minute.
His conversion gave the Rebels breathing space at 24-17 in the shadows of half time.
But a misjudged kick from Maddocks that went dead, brought the Highlanders valuable field position. A cross-field kick and strength from Naholo on the touch line on the next play, saw the ball off-loaded to Teihorangi Walden for a try in the 40th minute.
Sopoaga’s conversion attempt slammed into the right-hand upright, as the Rebels took the 24-22 advantage at half time.
Both sides traded nervous errors after the long break, with the costliest of them coming from Iaone in the 52nd minute.
Another clearance kick was yet again charged-down by Hodge, who had the ball sit fortuitously, allowing him to complete his hat-trick.
Hodge’s conversion gave the Rebels a 31-22 buffer.
Minutes later, the Rebels were on the attack and pointed to the posts after winning a penalty. Hodge made no mistake from dead in front, as the Rebels skipped out to a 34-22 lead at the 58-minute mark.
But it would be the Highlanders’ bench that would provide the spark for the home side.
Some strong build-up saw Highlanders wing Tevita Li barge over on the left-hand side after 63 minutes.
Sopoaga’s conversion cut the margin to 34-29; still advantage Rebels.
Then reserve back, Josh McKay got the Dunedin crowd to their feet with a blistering run off a Ruru box kick. The run set-up reserve prop, Greg Pleasants-Tate to crash over after multiple phases and tie the scores at 34-all after 66 minutes.
Sopoaga converted again, as the home side took the lead for the first time in the match.
The Highlanders appeared to have put the icing on the cake when Walden crossed down the left wing, only for the TMO to rule a forward pass.
The home side didn’t have to wait long however, as reserve lock Thomas Franklin put the ball on the padding in the 75th minute.
Sopoaga’s conversion looked to have sealed the deal, stretching the scoreboard advantage to 43-34 for the Highlanders.
But a penalty goal from in front by Hodge’s replacement, Jack Debreczeni in the 79th minute to cut the margin back to 43-37, breathed some life into the match.
With the final siren gone, the Rebels final play was aided by an offside penalty to take them to a lineout on halfway. The next play found Maddocks hurtling toward the line, before being met by a match-saving, bone-crunching hit from Naholo which ended the contest.
Final score Highlanders 43 (22) Rebels 37 (24)
Tries – W.Naholo, K.Hammington, T.Walden, T.Li, . G. Pleasants-Tate, T.Franklin
Pen – L.Sopoaga
Con – L.Sopoaga 5
Tries – A.Mafi, R.Hodge 3
Pen – R.Hodge 2, J.Debreczeni
Con – R.Hodge 3
Cards – M.Ruru (yellow 22nd min)
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant Ref 1:Paul Williams
Assistant Ref 2:Brendon Pickerill
TMO :Chris Hart
1. Aki Seuili,2. Liam Coltman,3. Tyrel Lomax,4. Alex Ainley,5. Jackson Hemopo,6. Shannon Frizell,7. James Lentjes (C),8. Liam Squire,9. Kayne Hammington,10. Lima Sopoaga,11. Tevita Li,12. Teihorangi Walden,13. Thomas Umaga-Jensen,14. Waisake Naholo,15. Josh Ioane
Replacements : 16. Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17. Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18. Kalolo Tuiloma, 19. Tom Franklin, 20. Dillon Hunt, 21. Josh Renton, 22. Matt Faddes, 23. Josh McKay
1. Fereti Sa’aga , 2. Anaru Rangi , 3. Sam Talakai , 4. Matt Philip , 5. Ross Haylett-Petty , 6. Angus Cottrell , 7. Colby Fainga’a , 8. Amanaki Mafi , 9. Michael Ruru , 10. Reece Hodge , 11. Marika Koroibete , 12. Billy Meakes , 13. Tom English ,capt.) , 14. Sefa Naivalu , 15. Jack Maddocks
Replacements : 16. Nathan Charles , 17. Tetera Faulkner , 18. Jermaine Ainsley , 19. Sam Jeffries , 20. Richard Hardwick , 21. Harrison Goddard , 22. Jack Debreczeni , 23. Lopeti Timani