DUNEDIN, New Zealand (AP) — The Dunedin-based Highlanders rallied from 17-3 down in the first half and 34-22 in the second to beat Melbourne 43-37 in Super Rugby on Saturday, leaving the Rebels' playoff chances in jeopardy.
Flyhalf Reece Hodge scored three tries among 27 points for the Rebels but that wasn't enough to lift his team to the win it needed to secure a place in the quarterfinals for the first time.
Hodge's replacement Jack Debreczeni kicked a last-minute penalty to earn the Rebels a bonus point but their qualification hopes now hangs on the outcome of other matches in the last regular-season round.
While the Highlanders had clinched their place in the playoffs before Saturday's match, allowing them to play an under-strength team, the Rebels needed to win to be sure of claiming the eighth and last playoff spot.
Their playoff hopes depend on the outcome of a match later Saturday between South Africa's Sharks and Argentina's Jaguares. The Jaguares have also qualified for the playoffs but the Sharks could take the last quarterfinal place from the Rebels if they beat the Jaguares in Durban.
The Rebels seemed to have Saturday's match in safekeeping after brisk starts to both halves, but the Highlanders showed spirit to rally twice and to open a 43-34 lead before Debreczini's late penalty. A massive tackle by Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo on Rebels fullback Jack Maddocks after the final siren ended the last hope for a Rebels victory.
"I think we just didn't play footy for the full 80 minutes," Rebels captain Tom English said. "We started well in the first then we just slipped away with a few system errors and let them into the game."
The Rebels took early control of the match with tries to backrower Amanaki Mafi and Hodge to lead 17-3 midway through the first half. A superb sideline dash by Naholo made it 17-10 and a try by scrumhalf Kayne Hammington leveled the score at 17-17.
The Rebels led again with Hodge's second try, which was one of two he scored from charged-down kicks. After a try to Highlanders center Tei Walden the Rebels went to halftime with a 24-22 lead.
Hodge completed his third try from another charge down in the 52nd minute and added a penalty for a 34-22 lead.
The Highlanders dug deep and rallied again with tries to winger Tevita Li and prop Greg Pleasants-Tate, leading for the first time in the 66th minute. Lock Tom Franklin scored the decisive try in the 70th minute, giving the Highlanders a 43-37 lead which survived the Rebels late comeback attempt.