The Highlanders beat the Rebels 33-30 in Dunedin on Friday with both sides scoring three tries.
At 20-20 after 46 minutes the match could have gone either way, but the influence of the Highlanders' All Blacks – Aaron and Ben Smith – was telling.
Losing Bryce Hegarty to a nasty knock as he fell to the ground from a mid-air collision disrupted the Rebels' plans, but they did strike first when sustained phases and good running in the Highlanders half yielded a try for Scott Fuglistaller.
The Highlanders, though, went in front 17-7 thanks to two tries. First, Malakai Fekitoa got up close to the line before Shane Christie finished the move off with a charge through the middle of the ruck. Then Aaron Smith's sidestepping ability was on full display as he left Jason Woodward rooted to the spot, skipping round the fullback to touch down.
Woodward and Lima Sopoaga exchanged further penalties before the break.
Early in the second half, Sean McMahon was fortunate not to be sent to the bin for a tip tackle on Aaron Smith.
It swung momentum the Rebels' way, as they produced a sensational breakout score. Scott Higginbotham intercepted a loose Highlanders' pass with the hosts on the attack and broke out, running down the left touchline and then playing a perfect grubber infield for replacement Angus Roberts to gather and score. Woodward's conversion drew them level at 20-20.
The next score was crucial and it came from a try for Ben Smith, finishing off in the corner a sustained period of pressure in the Rebels' 22 after Smith and Nasi Manu opted not to go for the points and instead put the ball in the corner.
Sopoaga then kicked another two penalties, before Woodward's strike made it 33-23.
By now the Highlanders were hunting the bonus-point try, but it was Woodward who scored for the visitors. His outside break took him into space from a set move at the lineout and he benefited from some criminal defence from Shaun Treeby to slide over. His resulting conversion set up a tense finish.
But time was against the Rebels and they weren't helped after Higginbotham, having done so much good work in the match, gave away a penalty deep into Rebels territory with 90 seconds left.
Highlanders – Tries: Shane Christie, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (3). Penalties: Sopoaga (4).
Rebels – Tries: Scott Fuglistaller, Angus Roberts, Jason Woodward. Conversions: Jason Woodward (3). Penalties: Woodward (3).
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Kurt Baker, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Chris King.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Matias Diaz, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 TJ Ioane.
Rebels – 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Male Sau, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Nic Stirzaker, 8 Scott Higginbotham (c), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Toby Smith.
Subs: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Paul Alo-Emilie, 18 Cruze Ah-Nau, 19 Cadeyrn Neville, 20 Jordy Reid, 21 Luke Burgess, 22 Angus Roberts, 23 Alex Rokobaro.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images