The Rebels completed one of the great comebacks in Vodacom Super Rugby history by scoring a try off the last move of the match that clinched them an exciting 38-37 win over the Highlanders in Melbourne on Friday.
The Highlanders would have thought they had the match wrapped up when they led 31-7 at halftime.
It had been an outstanding first half for them, and they clinched their four-try bonus point on the stroke of the break when prop Tony Woodcock found himself under a mass of bodies that fell over near the left corner.
No-one would have given the Rebels any chance then as up till then there had been only team on the field.
The Highlanders had scored their first try as early as the sixth minute, with fullback Ben Smith, who seemed untouchable in the opening 40 and just blitzed through every time he got the ball, swiveled inside the tackler as the ball was spun to the left to make it 7-0.
The Rebels struck back with a try to Tom English after a good break from Jason Woodward, who converted to make it 7-all, but for the rest of the half it was all the Highlanders as Hosea Gear, Tamati Ellison and then Woodward crossed for tries and flyhalf Colin Slade added the balance with his boot.
Then came halftime, and as Highlanders captain Andrew Hore put it afterwards, “halftime is not our friend”.
It wasn’t last week either, as they enjoyed a really big lead at the break against the Hurricanes before the Wellington team forced their way back into contention in the second half and only lost out by five points in an even more high-scoring thriller (49-44) as this one was.
One thing the Highlanders aren’t doing well at this stage of the season is tackling, and it was what let them down after halftime, when the Rebels enjoyed all the possession.
James O’Connor had come on as a replacement by then, and made an immediate impact as he created the space that put wing Cooper Vuna in for his first try a few minutes into the half.
Then came a period of nearly 20 minutes where the Rebels did most of the attacking but the Highlanders defence did stand firm. A Slade penalty put the Highlanders three more points into the advantage, and at 34-14 with 18 minutes to go, it still looked like the team from Dunedin were cantering to victory.
But think again – Vuna scored his second try after coming in off the blindside wing from a scrum and then Tom English went over to the left as O’Connor’s passing game came to the fore, and with Woodward adding both conversions, it was suddenly everyone’s game as the Highlanders’ lead was cut to just six points with 13 minutes to play.
And the Rebels probably thought they had completed their fightback when Bryce Hegarty, picked as the flyhalf but who appeared to be interchanging with O’Connor after halftime, wriggled over in the left corner with five minutes to go. Woodward lined up the kick and most would have thought it would decide the game.
However, when the ball slipped to the left of the uprights to leave the Highlanders clinging to a one point lead, there was still more to come.
The first strike was in the Highlanders’ favour, with one of only two visits into Rebels territory in the second half netting a penalty that replacement Hayden Parker kicked to make it a four point lead with just three minutes left.
For almost that entire three minutes the Rebels retained possession in a build-up that went through phase after phase, patience being the great virtue of the attacking team, until eventually Vuna was presented with some space down the left flank and he had Hegarty on his inside to complete the winning try and one of the most amazing comebacks of modern rugby.
Gareth Delve, the Rebels No 8 and captain, attempted the conversion in his last act for the Rebels before leaving, and it was a fitting end for the several Rebels players and coaches who were involved in their swansong. Delve missed the kick but the game was already won.
Rebels - Tries: Tom English (2), Cooper Vuna (2), Bryce Hegarty (2). Conversions: Jason Woodward (4).
Highlanders - Tries: Ben Smith, Hosea Gear, Tamati Ellison, Tony Woodcock. Conversions: Colin Slade (4). Penalties: Slade (2), Hayden Parker.