Highlanders overwhelmed by Rebels fightback
Departing star James O'Connor came off the bench to help spark the Melbourne Rebels to a thrilling come-from-behind 38-37 victory over the Highlanders at AAMI Park on Friday night.
But with O'Connor at the centre of nearly every attacking surge in his final game for the club, the Rebels scored four tries in the closing stages to finish their Super Rugby season on a high.
It looked to be mission impossible for the Melbourne side midway through the second half when they were being outplayed by the Dunedin-based outfit and the final 20 minutes had to be seen to be believed.
The Highlanders didn't trail for the first 79 minutes of the contest, with Bryce Hegarty scoring the winning try right at the death to help the Rebels register their fifth win of the season and complete their most successful campaign in Super Rugby to date.
It was a game that the New Zealand side should never have lost.
With Colin Slade on song with the boot, they dominated the opening half and looked to be well on their way to their fourth triumph of 2013.
But as has been the case so many times this year, the Highlanders were found wanting when it mattered as O'Connor and the Rebels found their best form late to produce the miracle victory.
Cooper Vuna, Tom English and Hegarty each scored two tries for the winners, while Ben Smith, Hosea Gear, Tamita Ellison and Tony Woodcock crossed over for the Highlanders.
With both sides out of finals contention and with nothing but pride to play for, there was a distinct lack of defence being played early on as the two teams threw the ball around and went on the attack for points.
Smith got the ball rolling when he crossed over for the visitors in the sixth minute, only for English to get the Rebels' first of the night moments later after a dashing run by Jason Woodward.
Gear helped restore the Highlanders' seven-point buffer when he scored in the 19th minute and a penalty goal to Slade shortly after gave the visitors a double-digit lead.
Every time the Highlanders enjoyed an extended period of possession they looked like scoring, so it was no surprise that they added another two tries to their already healthy score in the minutes leading up to half-time.
Gear turned provider to set up Ellison in the 36th minute, before Woodcock barged over on the stroke of half-time to help put the Highlanders out by 24 (31-7) at the break.
Vuna scored a fortuitous try early in the second half to give the Rebels hope and the introduction of O'Connor shortly after seemed to strengthen that resolve.
He set up Vuna for his second on the hour mark with a pass that Super Rugby backs only dream of receiving and then did the same for English moments later as the Rebels closed within six (34-28) with 12 minutes remaining.
Hegarty crossed in the corner in the 74th minute to draw the Rebels within one, but Jason Woodward's conversion drifted wide as the Highlanders held on to a narrow lead with time running out.
Hayden Parker then kicked a penalty goal to give the visitors some breathing space, but Hegarty bobbed up at the death to complete the remarkable turnaround.