The Highlanders recorded a comfortable 27-3 bonus-point win over the Rebels in Melbourne on Saturday, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.
The defending champions will be pleased with the scoreline but not so much the performance, and yet they were still good enough to score three unanswered tries to come away with five log points on the road.
Like they did against the Bulls three weeks ago, the Rebels displayed good fighting spirit in the second half but a remarkable defensive effort by the Highlanders kept them at bay to squash any hopes of a comeback.
The Highlanders initially struggled to wear the opposition defence down, despite dominating territorially as the Rebels survived multiple attacks inside the 22 to get through the first quarter unscathed.
That steadfast defending forced the Highlanders to attempt a long-range kick at goal after receiving a penalty. Lima Sopoaga made no mistake off the tee, giving the visitors a deserving 3-0 lead. One minute later centre Rob Thompson dotted down for the opening try. Aaron Smith’s box kick was fumbled at the back by Jonah Placid and Thompson toed the ball through to extend their advantage.
Sopoaga added the conversion and then raised the flags again with a second penalty as the Highlanders went 13-0 clear at the turn. The Rebels, on the stroke of half-time, butchered a golden opportunity to get on the board when Placid’s final pass rolled into touch instead of finding Don Shipperley.
Jack Debreczeni knocked over a penalty seven minutes into the second half, but that would be their first and last points, in spite of testing the Highlanders defence for the better part of the second stanza.
Journeyman Jack Wilson, on debut for the Highlanders, had a strong game and in the 55th minute he was rewarded with a try after the Rebels again failed to negotiate a kick-through by Smith.
The Rebels continued to fight but the Highlanders delivered a sucker-punch when winger Patrick Osborne intercepted the ball inside the 22 to score a breakaway bonus-point try.
Rebels – Penalty: Jack Debreczeni.
Highlanders – Tries: Rob Thomson, Jack Wilson, Patrick Osborne. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (3). Penalties: Sopoaga (2).
Rebels – 15 Jonah Placid, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Ben Meehan, 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Sean McMahon (c), 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Lopeti Timpani, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith.
Subs: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Scott Fuglistaller, 21 Nic Stirzaker, 22 Dan Hawkins, 23 Reece Hodge.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Ryan Tongia, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (c), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery.
Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images