WELLINGTON – The Highlanders secured a 43-37 win over the Melbourne Rebels in a helter-skelter ride of a match in Dunedin on Saturday that dealt a blow to the Australian team’s hopes of a maiden Super Rugby playoff campaign.
The 2015 champions, who were already assured of a place in next week’s quarter-finals, rested several regular starters, but scored six tries to come from behind and snap a two-match losing streak.
The Rebels, whose flyhalf Reece Hodge scored a hat trick of tries in a losing cause, needed a win to guarantee themselves a place in the post-season for the first time and their defeat opens the door to South Africa’s Sharks.
The Sharks host the Jaguares later on Saturday in a match that is crucial to the Argentine side’s hopes of moving above the Lions and winning the South Africa conference.
The Lions take on the Bulls in their final match of the regular season.
A losing bonus point for the Rebels ended the slender playoff hopes of the Brumbies ahead of their match against Australian conference champions the Waratahs in Sydney.
The Rebels, looking for only their second win on New Zealand soil, made a great start and an early penalty, a try from number eight Amanaki Mafi from a catch-and-drive and the first of Hodge’s five-pointers gave them a 17-3 lead after 20 minutes.
Rebels scrumhalf Michael Ruru was sin-binned for a deliberate trip after 23 minutes, though, and the hosts were level by the time he returned, Waisake Naholo racing the length of the field for one try and Kayne Hammington adding a second.
Hodge plucked the ball out of the sky to put the Rebels in front again, but centre Tei Walden hit back for the Highlanders before the break.
Lima Sopoaga would have tied up the scores at 24-24 had his conversion not come back off the upright.
The Rebels flyhalf extended the lead to 34-22 with a try from a charge-down of a clearance kick and a second penalty, but the visitors were unable to maintain the momentum.
Two tries on three minutes from winger Tevita Li and replacement hooker Greg Pleasants-Tate gave the Highlanders a two-point lead after 66 minutes, and lock Tom Franklin added a sixth try for the Highlanders four minutes from time.
Replacement Jack Debreczeni slotted a late penalty to give the Rebels a glimmer of hope.
But their final attack was ended by a massive hit by winger Naholo on Jack Maddocks to leave their playoff chances hanging on other results.