The Melbourne Rebels fought off a late Highlanders fightback to record a famous 24-19 win as the Kilted Kiwis wilted in the Australian heat at AAMI Park, Melbourne.
Quade Cooper pulled the strings at first receiver as the Rebels recorded their first win over New Zealand opposition since 2015 with a virtuoso display.
Dave Wessels’ men traded tries with the Otago side in a ding-dong battle. Tom English scored a first-half brace after Shannon Frizell’s fourth try of the season opened the scoring for the visitors.
Siate Tokolahi crossed for his maiden Super Rugby try. Jack Maddocks levelled the game and English’s second, gave the hosts a lead they would not relinquish.
Billy Meakes’ extended the Rebels’ advantage to 12 after the break. However, the Highlanders fought back, scoring late in the match after some sustained pressure inside the opposition’s 22.
Wessels’ side had to withstand a ferocious fightback following Jackson Hemopo’s try and their rearguard action was made possible thanks to Michael Ruru’s last-ditch tackle at the death.
Victory is a long time coming
This was a much-needed win for the Rebels. In fact, much-needed for Australian rugby and the tournament, as a whole.
The Highlanders had won 14 of their previous 16 matches against the Aussie franchises having last tasted defeat (their only defeat) to the Victorian side back in 2013.
Cooper put in a vintage performance under the lights at AAMI Park, but his night didn’t start that well.
He was bounced by Waisake Naholo on the wing in the build-up to Frizell’s opener.
Bryn Gatland’s cross-kick was caught and finished by flanker for his fourth Super Rugby try in the three games of the season.
Naholo thought he’d scored an intercept, but the play was called back for offsides.
Will Genia, who managed his side superbly from halfback darted blind, sent a pass to Dane Haylett-Petty. The fullback held off a defender and put English through a tight gap to level.
Josh McKay thought he had scored but Haylette-Petty, from provider to the defender, disrupted the McKay enough for him to be out before losing the ball in the act of grounding.
Tokolahi crashed over after a well-worked driving maul from close-range. Gatland’s touchline conversion put the Highlanders up by five.
Marika Koroibete was involved throughout; sometimes good, sometimes bad. The Rebels were attacking from deep, using the winger, but he coughed up possession and took some poor decisions.
Kane Hammington broke blind from a scrum, but he was isolated, giving away a penalty.
It did not matter because the hosts retook the lead. Maddocks found himself on the scoresheet again after some Cooper magic in midfield, put the wing away.
Melbourne went 12 phases, pulling the Highlanders left to right and back again before the standoff’s no-look offload, did for the Kiwis in the 26th minute.
Tit for tat as the sides traded blows
This game had averaged 71 points and nine tries per game, in its short history and it was looking on course to continue when English scored his second.
English ghosted through defenders thanks to some Meakes magic after the forwards got the backs into striking distance.
Wessels’ side just about hung on at the end of the half, which would prove vital at the end of the game.
Rebels strike first after the interval
Cooper was at it again. This time Meakes collected his grubber, and after the ball bounced unkindly for Gatland, the centre dotted down.
He celebrated with some dance floor moves to the delight of coach and crowd
It had been a scorching 32 degrees Celsius in the city, something the Kiwis were struggling to adapt.
Aaron Mauger wrung the changes in an attempt to give fresh legs to his charges. The hosts were putting in the hits; Adam Coleman up-ended a Kiwi with some strong defending.
The dam wall did eventually break. Hemopo with a pick-and-drive from close range that gives the visitors a sniff.
Reece Hodge missed a 49-metre penalty as his team started to make mistakes and poor decisions with the Otago side breathing down their necks.
Sam Talakai was doing robust work at the ruck and Genia went down with cramp.
The Rebels’ pack, however, were starting to dominate as the Highlanders tired. They won a scrum-penalty and probably could have had another but for some lenient refereeing.
Koroibete saved the day with some superb work on his goal line after an attack turned into defence.
The Highlanders kept coming, camping inside the Rebels’ 22. They forced a penalty and opted for a scrum.
They went 18-phases before winning a penalty on the try line. The Kiwis took it quickly and seemed to have scored.
The try was not awarded after a TMO review because Ruru’s ‘Hand of God’ rescued the Rebels.
Final Score: Rebels 24 (19) Highlanders 19 (12)
Tries – English (2), Maddocks, Meakes
Con – Cooper (2)
Tries – Frizell, Tokolahi, Hemopo
Con – Gatland (2)
Referee: AJ Jacobs
Assistant Ref 1: Marius van der Westhuizen
Assistant Ref 2: Damon Murphy
TMO: Ian Smith
Rebels: 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Jack Maddocks, 13 Tom English, 12 Billy Meakes, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Isi Naisarani, 7 Brad Wilkin, 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Matt Philip, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Sam Talakai, 2 Anaru Rangi, 1 Tetera Faulkner.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Abel, 17 Matt Gibbon, 18 Jermaine Ainsley, 19 Adam Coleman, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Rob Leota, 22 Michael Ruru, 23 Reece Hodge
Highlanders: 15 Josh Ioane, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Josh McKay, 10 Bryn Gatland, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Elliot Dixon, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Pari Pari Parkinson, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon (Captain), 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Ricky Jackson, 17 Ayden Johnstone, 18 Josh Iosefa-Scott, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Patelesio Tomkinson, 23 Marty Banks