An inspiring eighty-minute defensive performance wasn’t enough for the Melbourne Rebels, with the tourists going down in heartbreaking fashion on Saturday.
In what was a gruelling contest, between two sides desperate for maximum points, the match looked headed towards golden point, before Highlanders centre Sam Gilbert booted the winning penalty in the 84th minute, breaking the deadlock to seal the win.
After an extraordinary try-saving tackle by star fullback Andrew Kellaway, who managed to roll and hold up the Highlanders flanker James Lentjes as he tried to score in the 75th minute, the Rebels went on the attack but frustratingly knocked the ball on after 10 phases.
Gilbert stepped up after Rebels No.8 Richard Hardwick, who was one of the Rebels best, was pinged at the breakdown.
Melbourne were made to play the final 10 minutes with 14 men after Jordan Uelese was given a yellow card after the reserve hooker brought down a Highlanders player without the ball, mistiming his tackle.
It was a courageous effort by the Rebels, who were chasing their second consecutive win in Dunedin without arguably their strongest contributor of the season, fly-half Carter Gordon, who was unavailable with a bruised knee.
The home side started strongly, and looked to have crossed after two minutes but Rebels winger Lachie Anderson somehow got his hand under the ball to stop Gilbert grounding it for a try.
Anderson pulled off another try-saving tackle later in the half when he bumped Sean Withy into touch as he surged toward the line.
The recently re-signed Rebel was one of his side’s best on Saturday, making six runs for 33 metres, with six tackles. Also impressing was Wallaby Andrew Kellaway, who ran 53 metres from 9 runs, beating four defenders, while Richard Hardwick submitted another spectacular performance, making 13 tackles and gaining 41 metres from 9 runs, with 2 clean breaks.
Vaiolini Ekuasi continued a memorable first season in Burn City, making a season high 23 tackles, along with 53 metres run.
Meanwhile, Matt Philip successfully got through his first match of the season.
The Wallabies lock played 53 minutes in his return from a major knee injury.
There were some rust-shedding ball-carries, eight tackles, a couple of lineout takes and some of that invisible strength for the Rebels scrum.
After entering half-time trailing 14-7, the Rebels hit back midway through the second-half, with Stacey Ili sneaking over, before a successful penalty strike from Reece Hodge gave the visitors a 17-14 lead.
However, it didn’t prove enough to keep the home side at bay.
The Rebels will now begin preparation for Friday night’s crucial clash with the Western Force in what will be the Club’s final home game of the 2023 Harvey Norman Super Rugby Pacific season.
It shapes as an unforgettable evening for Rebels’ supporters, with Reece Hodge set to break Tom English’s record for most Caps for the Melbourne Club.
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