Both sides scored three tries each in a high-scoring affair but the boot of Highlanders flyhalf Lima Sopoaga ultimately proved the difference, landing four penalties and three conversions for a personal tally of 18 points. After a free-flowing opening half hour, the match turned into a tense grind with a number of scrum penalties slowing the tempo. The Highlanders managed to hold the Rebels at arm’s length during a tight second half though a late try to fullback Jason Woodward earned his side a bonus point.
The loss of flyhalf Bryce Hegarty to concussion in the opening moments of the match forced an early reshuffle in the Rebels backline, which often struggled to combine in clearing the ball from deep in their own territory. However the Rebels worked their way back into the game with Captain Scott Higginbotham again leading from the front and Nic Stirzaker playing a fine game at the base of the scrum. But despite closing the gap on a number of occasions throughout the match, the Rebels could not grab the lead.
The Rebels looked to stamp their authority in defence early, Higginbotham almost shocking the locals with an intercept that could have ended in a try had he kept his feet. Soon after Hegarty’s night came to an abrupt end after landing awkwardly following a mid-air challenge for the ball, replacement back Angus Roberts taking his place. Despite this setback, the Rebels scored first when the nippy Stirzaker stepped through the defence and offloaded to Scott Fuglistaller who forced his way over the line, Woodward converting for a 7-0 lead.
The Highlanders responded when Sopoaga landed his first penalty goal of the night then launched a counter attack from their own half that included some exciting attacking play, scrumhalf Aaron Smith appearing to cross for a sensational try. However the TMO ruled the final pass from winger Richard Buckman went forward and no try was awarded. The home side kept the pressure on, forcing a turnover when the Rebels were unable to clear the ball from their own 22. The resultant penalty saw the Highlanders opt to spread the ball quickly and despite some strong initial defence, flanker Shane Christie dived over for a try to establish a 10-7 lead.
The Rebels leveled the score via a Woodward penalty when Ben Smith was called for not releasing from the restart. But the home side responded with centres Malakai Fekitoa and Shaun Treeby combining to put the Rebels on the back foot, allowing Aaron Smith to step his way past two defenders to cross for a converted try. Woodward then missed a long penalty attempt however the Rebels were beginning to gain some ascendency, forcing errors out of their opponents. But momentum was lost when the Rebels scrum was penalised on their own 22, Sopoaga putting his side up 20-10 with halftime approaching.
The rest of the half was dominated by issues at the scrum but strong defensive work from former Highlander Tamati Ellison won possession for the Rebels, leading to a scrum penalty and another Woodward penalty to close the gap to seven points. Sopoaga had a chance to to extend lead to ten points right on halftime but a rare miss saw the teams leave the field with a 20-13 Highlanders lead.
The Rebels took to the field in the second half knowing that they overcame a much larger halftime deficit to beat the Highlanders in Melbourne last season. And they made the best possible start when, with the Highlanders threatening the line, Higginbotham rushed out of the defensive line to intercept. This time the skipper kept his feet, running forty metres along the sideline and placing a well weighted kick along the ground for Roberts to pick up and score, Woodward levelling the match at 20-all with the great conversion from out wide.
Sopoaga again gave his side the advantage with his third penalty of the night before the Highlanders elected to kick for territory rather than settle for the penalty attempt after another scrum penalty against the visitors. The Rebels defended valiantly but the Highlanders kept hammering the line until eventually spreading the ball wide left for an unmarked Ben Smith to score, restoring the lead to ten points.
The Rebels stayed in touch with a Woodward penalty goal but were twice caught offside in defence, Sopoaga landing one of two attempts for a 33-23 lead with fifteen minutes to go.
After a sustained period of pressure, the Rebels looked like they had blown their last opportunity when replacement half Luke Burgess pressed the line but was unable to find a teammate with the offload pass. TheHighlanders cleared the ball but the ensuing lineout resulted in a great backline move, a slick Ellison pass putting the in-form Woodward on a path to the line. A booming sideline conversion from Woodward made the score 33-30 with just three minutes to play.
With the clock ticking, the Rebels probed the defence from deep in their own half but the Highlanders came up with the vital turnover to secure victory. The Rebels now travel north to take on the defending champion Chiefs next Saturday before returning home to take on the Western Force at AAMI Park on Good Friday.
Highlanders 33 Tries Christie, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith Conversions Sopoaga (3) Penalties Sopoaga (4)
RaboDirect Rebels 30 Tries Fuglistaller, Roberts, Woodward Conversions Woodward (3) Penalties Woodward (3)