WELLINGTON – Otago Highlanders finished strongly to scrape past Queensland Reds for a 36-31 win in a pulsating nine-try thriller in Dunedin on Friday.
The Highlanders scored five tries to four, including a Shannon Frizzell double, with a late Dillon Hunt effort out wide enough to break the Reds' hearts.
“It was a hell of a tough battle. They were fast and direct and asked a lot of questions up front,” Highlanders skipper Luke Whitelock said.
The Reds, who finished a disappointing 13th last year, slumped to their 11th straight win in New Zealand, a sequence dating back to 2013.
But they fought back from 29-17 down to have victory in their sights before Hunt's try, and Reds captain Samu Kerevi said his young team was on the rise.
“The belief is there,” he said. “We just needed to be mentally on at key moments. At times we just missed little jobs and you can't do that against a quality side like the Highlanders.”
He said the Queenslanders were inspired by lock Izack Rodda, who scored a try after insisting on playing even though his father died two days ago.
“He's a very strong guy, my love and condolences go out (to) the family and we'll band together, win or lose, stick tight and work harder for next week.”
The Reds ran hard at the Highlanders and were rewarded with an early penalty but the home team hit back immediately with a Rob Thompson try.
Both sides' speedsters came to the fore in a frantic period of play, with Waisake Naholo dangerous on the wing for the Highlanders but unable to break through.
His opposite number Chris Feauai-Sautia had no such problem, wrong-footing the defence for Queensland's first try.
The Highlanders aimed to take control with two quick tries, the first from Shannon Frizzell and the second a Ben Smith effort that was lucky to stand after the referee missed a forward pass in the build-up.
The Reds stayed in touch with a Moses Sorovi try after some slick backline work following a lineout steal, going into half-time trailing 24-17.
The Highlanders' fixed their lineout after the restart and were rewarded when Frizzell barged over for another try that was a virtual carbon copy of his first.
The Reds lifted again after forcing a turnover as the Highlanders threatened their line.
Lukhan Salakaia-Loto kicked the ball to the halfway line, then Bryce Hegarty kicked it again before Sorovi popped a pass into the path of the onrushing Rodda.
The Reds took the lead when Feao Fotuaika powered his way over the line for a converted try.
They regathered for a mighty defensive effort in the final quarter, holding up Ben Smith on the line, but could not keep out Hunt out wide in the 74th minute.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)