The Highlanders overturned a 14-point deficit to defeat the Rebels 43-37 in Dunedin on Saturday. MARIETTE ADAMS reports.
The result has no effect on the Highlanders’ placing on the overall standings. They finish sixth and will be away to the Waratahs, Lions or Jaguares in the quarter-finals next week, depending on which one of those teams end third on the log. All three are in action later on Saturday.
The Sharks now need to beat the Jaguares at Kings Park to finish eighth ahead of the Rebels and set up a quarter-final against the Crusaders in Christchurch.
This game was played at a frenetic pace, as the Highlanders and Rebels combined for a grand total of 10 tries, six of which were scored in the first half. Defensive structure and pressure seemed to be an afterthought.
Reece Hodge was as impressive off the kicking tee as he was in open play en route to accumulating his personal tally of 29 points. Apart from his three tries, he was flawless off the tee, kicking six out of six attempts. But his effort was in vain as the Highlanders fought back twice – first to level matters and then to take the lead – to clinch a thrilling victory.
The challenge at hand was made just slightly easier for the Rebels, as the Highlanders rested Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, Elliot Dixon, Ash Dixon and Rob Thompson. And the visitors took advantage of those missing personnel as they raced out to a 17-3 lead inside the opening 20 minutes.
From turnover possession, the Highlanders scored two tries to level matters at 17-17, but Hodge plucked an attempted chip over the top out of the air for his second to put the Rebels back in front. Again, the Highlanders hit back with a try, but the failed conversion by Lima Sopoaga gave the Rebels a 24-22 lead at half-time.
The action didn’t let up in the second half. Hodge completed his hat-trick with an intercept try and added a penalty later to extend the Rebels’ advantage to 12 points.
But the Highlanders launched their second comeback of the game in the final quarter after emptying their bench. They ran in three unanswered scores, with the second by Greg Pleasants-Tate putting them in front for the first time in the 67th minute.
There was still time for the Rebels as the game finished on a knife’s edge. Trailing by nine with seconds remaining, Jack Debreczeni slotted a penalty to bring them within a converted try. They rushed to take one last kick-off and almost scored in stoppage time, but Waisake Naholo made a try-saving tackle and a support player beat the Rebels to the ruck to hang on for a match-defining penalty.
Highlanders – Tries: Waisake Naholo, Kayne Hammington, Tei Walden, Tevita Li, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Tom Franklin. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (5). Penalty: Sopoaga.
Rebels – Tries: Amanaki Mafi, Reece Hodge (3). Conversions: Hodge (4). Penalties: Hodge (2), Jack Debreczeni.
Highlanders – 15 Josh Ioane, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 12 Tei Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Liam Squire, 7 James Lentjes (c), 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Jackson Hemopo, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Aki Seuili.
Subs: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Kalolo Tuiloma, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Dillon Hunt, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Matt Faddes, 23 Josh McKay.
Rebels – 15 Jack Maddocks, 14 Sefa Naivalu, 13 Tom English (c), 12 Billy Meakes, 11 Marika Koroibete, 10 Reece Hodge, 9 Michael Ruru, 8 Amanaki Mafi, 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Ross Haylett-Petty, 4 Matt Philip, 3 Sam Talaki, 2 Anaru Rangi, 1 Fereti Sa’aga Tetera Faulkner.
Subs: 16 Nathan Charles, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Jermaine Ainsley, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Harrison Goddard, 22 Jack Debreczeni, 23 Lopeti Timani.
Photo: Dianne Manson/Getty Images