Planet Rugby

Highlanders hold on to defeat Rebels

04th April 2014 09:23

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The Highlanders picked up their third win of the season in a high-scoring 33-30 success over the Melbourne Rebels in Dunedin.

Any fixture featuring the Highlanders is bound to bring a guaranteed level of entertainment to proceedings and so it proved.

Here they racked up 33 points but were made to work against a Rebels outfit that has been reformed and rejuvenated this season with a greater team ethic and through the performances of rising stars such as Jason Woodward.

At 20-20 the match could have fallen wither way, but the influence of the Highlanders' All Blacks - Aaron and Ben Smith - was telling. Both teams came into this one seeking their third win of the season and in the end the Highlanders just had that extra touch of class.

The Rebels are showing more confidence in their play than perhaps we've ever seen since their induction into Super Rugby, and it paid off early on.

Losing Bryce Hegarty to a nasty knock as he fell to the ground from a mid-air collision certainly disrupted Tony McGahan's plans, but the Rebels did strike first.

Sustained phases and good running in the Highlanders half eventually yielded a try for Scott Fuglistaller against his former team. The 26-year-old, who made two appearances for the Highlanders in 2012, burst through a half-gap and momentum carried him over the line to the left of the posts.

The perfect start, but it didn't last too long. Lima Sopoaga's kicking of late has been outstanding and he knocked over an immediate three-point response after the Rebels went offside.

Anything the Rebels number seven could do, the Highlanders' version in Scott Christie could do better.

With the Highlanders playing at their typical high tempo, Malakai Fekitoa got up close to the line before Christie finished the move off with a charge through the middle of the ruck.

The lead swapped hands thanks to a penalty from Woodward before the Highlanders landed a second blow on their guests.

Aaron Smith's glorious sidestepping ability was on full display as he left Woodward grounded to the spot, skipping round the full-back to touch down and extend the hosts' lead with Sopoaga's conversion to 17-10.

Woodward and Sopoaga exchanged further penalties before half-time, with the Highlanders fly-half then missing his first attempt at goal since two weeks ago against the Hurricanes.

Early controversy occurred at the start of the second half when Rebels flanker Sean McMahon was fortunate not to be sent to the bin for a tip tackle on Aaron Smith - referee Chris Pollock showing arguably some incorrect leniency.

It swung momentum the Rebels' way, as they produced a sensational breakout score.

Scott Higginbotham intercepted a loose Highlanders' pass with the hosts on the attack and broke out, running down the left touchline and then playing a perfect grubber infield for replacement Angus Roberts to gather and score. Woodward's conversion drew them level at 20-20.

The next score was obviously crucial and it came from a try for All Blacks star Ben Smith, finishing off in the corner a sustained period of pressure in the Rebels' 22 after Smith and Nasi Manu opted not to go for the points and instead put the ball in the corner.

Sopoaga's penalty minutes later handed the hosts a comfy ten-point cushion at 30-20 heading into the final quarter.

But his kicking touch went missing when he clattered his next penalty attempt off the post, forcing a scramble in the try area before the Rebels recovered and cleared the pressure.

Sopoaga had no problems with his fourth penalty, Woodward again countering, but by now the Highlanders were hunting the try bonus point.

Higginbotham had other ideas, breaking into the Highlanders 22 and keeping them honest as the Rebels attacked the line endlessly but were unable to come away with a try - Higginbotham nearly throwing an interception into the hands of Kurt Baker.

Woodward was the man to make it happen, his outside break taking him into space from a set move at the lineout as he benefited from some criminal defence from Shaun Treeby to slide over. His resulting conversion set up a tense finish at 33-30.

Time was against the Rebels and they weren't helped after Higginbotham, having done so much good work in the match, gave away a penalty deep into Rebels territory with 90 seconds left.

The Highlanders' ambitions of a bonus point though were still on the cards and they kicked to the corner. It wasn't to be, but the win was enough for Jamie Joseph's men.

The scorers:

For Highlanders:
Tries: Christie, A.Smith, B.Smith
Cons: Sopoaga 3
Pens: Sopoaga 4

For Rebels:
Tries: Fuglistaller, Roberts, Woodward
Cons: Woodward 3
Pens: Woodward 3

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Kurt Baker, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Chris King.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Matias Diaz, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 TJ Ioane.

Rebels: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Male Sau, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Nic Stirzaker, 8 Scott Higginbotham (c), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Luke Jones, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Shota Horie, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Paul Alo-Emilie, 18 Cruze Ah-Nau, 19 Cadeyrn Neville, 20 Jordy Reid, 21 Luke Burgess, 22 Angus Roberts, 23 Alex Rokobaro.

Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)

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