Scrumhalf Aaron Smith produced a Man of the Match performance to inspire the Highlanders to a 42-27 win against the Rebels in Sydney on Sunday.
The Reds gave Australian teams their first win in 14 matches in the tournament on Saturday night when they beat the Hamilton-based Chiefs 40-34, hanging on after leading 33-0 at halftime.
The Highlanders restored usual order though with a win by six tries to four, giving New Zealand teams a 14-1 record after three of five rounds.
But they missed a vital bonus point when scrumhalf Smith knocked the ball on near the goalline in the final minute.
‘We’ve done a fair bit of traveling in the last couple of weeks but we came here with a purpose and really tried to chase that bonus point,’ Highlanders captain Ash Dixon said. ‘But we just pulled up short right at the end.’
Sunday’s match was to be played in Queenstown, New Zealand where it would have been attended by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison who are meeting at a summit in the South Island resort.
But New Zealand closed its borders to travelers from Melbourne after a community Covid-19 outbreak in Australia’s second-largest city and the match was hastily moved to Leichhardt Oval in Sydney.
The Highlanders scored the first try after only two minutes when Smith dropped a kick into midfield from a lineout and centre Michael Collins ran onto a ball which bounced awkwardly for Rebels fullback George Worth.
They extended the lead to 14-0 when a surge, which included tight forwards Ethan de Groot and Liam Coltman, created space on the right for winger Sio Tomkinson.
That seemed to put the Highlanders on course to a commanding win. But the Rebels stuck back with a try to winger Marika Koroibete — his first in 11 matches this season — and another to prop Cabous Eloff to cut the lead to 14-12 at halftime.
Worth kicked a long-range penalty just after the restart to give the Rebels the lead at 15-14.
Rebels hooker Jordan Uelese was sin-binned in the 46th minute for a clumsy professional foul and the Highlanders fully capitalized, scoring three tries in his absence.
The first, a penalty try, came when the Highlanders thrust an under-manned Rebels pack back over their own goalline at a scrum.
That three-try burst carried the Highlanders to a decisive 35-15 lead.
Again the Rebels rallied, taking advantage of a yellow card against the Highlanders to score tries through Matt Gibbon and Koroibete to cut the lead to 35-27.
The Highlanders clinched their win with a late try to replacement Billy Harmon but still fell short of the three-try advantage they needed for a bonus point. It is still most likely the tournament final will be an all-New Zealand contest.