The Reds sent out a loud warning to future opponents that they could well be contenders for the trophy they won two seasons ago, but not before resisting a stirring fightback from the Highlanders before scraping to a 34-33 Vodacom Super Rugby win in Dunedin on Saturday.
It was the Reds’ first win in the south island city since 1981, and along the way they scored four tries to bank a bonus point.
They certainly look to be regaining their old attacking touch now that Will Genia is regaining his old confidence behind a pack that has welcomed back the imposing influence of captain James Horwill.
But sometimes you do get the impression that teams, once they hit a losing sequence, just forget how to win, and the Highlanders did give that impression as they squandered the momentum they had gained through two excellent second-half tries that brought them to within one point of the Reds going into the last eight minutes after they had trailed by 15 earlier in the half.
It has to be said that South African referee Jaco Peyper may have helped the Reds escape. It looked suspiciously like a Reds forward had knocked the ball on as he tried to latch onto a Highlanders over-throw metres from his line with four minutes to go.
If Peyper had seen it as the commentators saw it, it should have been a Highlanders put-in at an attacking scrum.
Instead the Reds won a penalty off the ensuing play and the rest of the game was played in the Highlanders’ half, where the Highlanders didn’t help themselves with some poor decision-making.
They also only had themselves to blame for over-throwing the lineout, so maybe they do need to learn how to win again.
The Reds were outstanding in the first half, and in the first five minutes they looked like they thought they had a train to catch as they dominated possession and camped in Highlanders territory.
It wasn’t a surprise when hooker James Hanson reached out to dot down for the first try after Quade Cooper had held onto the ball and surged through a gap to create the opportunity, with Hanson getting the ball near the line and wriggling over in the shadow of some of his fellow forwards.
Cooper nailed that conversion but the Reds were heavily penalised early in the game – later the trend was reversed – and Colin Slade hit back for the Highlanders with two penalties before No 8 Elliot Dixon went over near the posts. The Highlanders were leading 13-7 at that stage and it looked like they might be taking control.
However it proved a false dawn for the Highlanders, with Quade Cooper being denied a try when Peyper rightly spotted an obstruction only for flanker Liam Gill to seal the deal a few minutes later as he dotted down from a rolling maul off an attacking lineout.
The Cooper conversion reclaimed the lead for the Reds after 26 minutes, and they never relinquished it.
Dom Shipperly effectively set up the next Reds try with a strong surge up the right flank, with only a great from-behind tackle by Jason Emery preventing the score after Shipperly had swiveled inside and then transferred play to a teammate.
A subsequent cross kick was knocked on over the line by the Reds, but Highlanders captain Andrew Hore had been guilty of committing what was effectively a professional foul and was penalised and carded.
Cooper struck the posts with his attempt to kick the points, but it was regathered by the Reds and they maintained the pressure before Reds No 8 Jake Shatz went over near the posts.
Colin Slade kicked a penalty to cut the deficit to five points (21-16) on the stroke of halftime, but there was no denying at that stage of the game that the Reds were significantly the better team.
It continued like that for the first part of the second half, with a Cooper penalty and then an excellent set-phase try in which Genia ran through with consummate ease after running off a Shatz feed from the back of an attacking scrum making it 31-16 to the Reds.
The Highlanders' fightback started on the hour mark, an explosive run up the right touchline from inside his own half by Ben Smith leading to a try for Hosea Gear.
The Reds were still more than a score ahead, but that changed in the 68th minute when after a long and patient build-up, centre Ma’a Nonu swerved through some ineffectual tackling near the line to make it a one-point game.
A Cooper penalty stopped the haemorrhaging but the Highlanders hit back with one of their own with eight to go and at that stage, with the hosts producing all the play, it looked as though they might finally break their duck when it comes to Super Rugby wins for the season.
But they fluffed the comeback by losing their confidence and assurance in the last minutes.
Highlanders – Tries: Elliot Dixon, Hosea Gear, Ma'a Nonu. Conversions: Colin Slade, Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalties: Slade (3), Sopoaga.
Reds – Tries: James Hanson, Liam Gill, Jake Schatz, Will Genia. Conversions: Quade Cooper (4). Penalties: Cooper (2).