The Reds reapplied the heat on Australian conference leaders the Brumbies after holding on to beat the Highlanders 19-13 on Friday.
The Reds kept the heat on Australian conference pace-setters the Brumbies after holding off the Highlanders 19-13 at Suncorp Stadium on Friday.
Defeat means that the Forsyth Barr Stadium outfit once again have to assess how they fell away so badly in the second half of a Super Rugby term.
Jamie Joseph's side began the year so well with five wins from six but ended 2012 with only two successes in their final six competition fixtures.
Meanwhile, the Reds are now just one step away from defending their title in the qualifying rounds as look to finish the regular-season job against the Waratahs next week on home soil. Should the Brumbies slip up in their final two games then it seems the Reds are set to jump on the summit.
It could have been so different, however, as the Highlanders came close to taking a critical victory into the final round, which is in fact their bye week.
But in the end fourteen points from the boot of Mike Harris and a try from James Slipper proved sufficient in winning the game in response to the away side's tries from Adam Thomson and Chris King.
It was tit-for-tat in the opening ten minutes as Mike Delany and Harris traded shots at goal. Despite the Highlanders' early drive to go for a try, they did not follow through with calls to plump for scrums and quick-taps as Jamie Mackintosh eventually pointed to the posts.
Harris replied three minutes later with a leveller from the kicking tee after the visitors were penalised by South African referee Jonathan Kaplan for having hands in a ruck.
What was apparent was the shadow of denting hopes of making the final six. Granted the visitors had less of a chance of making the play-offs after their season had somewhat unravelled following what was once again a promising start from the Dunedin franchise.
Consequently there was to be no further score until the 32nd minute as caution hampered what was expected to be a good game between two teams that like to play. Those who had been treated to the Chiefs and Crusaders moments before were no doubt feeling cheated.
Both coaches made changes at the break as Joseph threw on All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith for Jimmy Cowan and King for captain Mackintosh. Meanwhile, Ewen McKenzie opted for Radike Samo to replace Beau Robinson, with Scott Higginbotham moving to the flank.
Harris' third shot of the game on 48 minutes did help open up breathing space and when Slipper was unmarked on the right wing to go in for a key try, the hosts had a 16-3 cushion.
The Reds looked on course for the win but when Thomson wrestled his way to the ground in the in-goal area and then King replied to three more Harris points, the comeback was on.
But despite the Highlanders' best efforts, it was a decision from their captain Mackintosh to go alone for the line that backfired and the prop was ultimately penalised for being isolated.
Pen: Harris 4
Tries: Thomson, King
Reds: 15 Luke Morahan, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Anthony Faingaa, 12 Mike Harris, 11 Chris F'Sautia, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Beau Robinson, 6 Jake Schatz, 5 Adam Wallace-Harrison, 4 Rob Simmons, 3 James Slipper, 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Greg Holmes.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Ben Daley, 18 Radike Samo, 19 Jarrad Butler, 20 Ben Lucas, 21 Ben Tapuai, 22 Nick Frisby.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Mike Delany, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 James Haskell, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Nick Crosswell, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (capt).
Replacements: 16 Jason Rutledge, 17 Chris King, 18 Jarrad Hoeata, 19 Tim Boys, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Chris Noakes, 22 Kenny Lynn.
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), James Leckie (Australia)
Television match official: Steve Lesczcynski (Australia)