Highlanders battle back to beat Rebels

A bloodied Teihorangi Walden runs in a try for the Highlanders in their win over the Rebels...
A bloodied Teihorangi Walden runs in a try for the Highlanders in their win over the Rebels tonight. Photo: Getty Images
Patience and resilience are the qualities that enabled the Highlanders to lock in their sixth place and are the qualities that will make them a serious contender in the play-offs.

Beating the Rebels was perhaps harder work than it needed to be, but the only thing that mattered for the Highlanders was that they managed to do it, 43-37.

They deliberately rested the core of their first choice team and then proceeded to play with a desire to remind everyone of that. They were loose, forced and a touch wild.

If they play like that next week – wherever they are in the world – they can forget about making the semis.

They won't get away with such a poor 40 minutes again. But no one should expect them to play with such profligacy again.

Not when Ben and Aaron Smith are back, with Luke Whitelock, Dillon Hunt and Rob Thompson.

And besides, to be fair to the Highlanders, it would be a better guide to their play-off chances to focus more on what happened in the second half than the first.

The Highlanders have so much fight in them that no one will want to play them in the next few weeks. Everyone, certainly the Crusaders, Chiefs and Hurricanes, will be happy to see the Southern franchise dumped out in the quarters because the longer they stay in, the more dangerous they will become.

They showed that in 2015 when their ability to hang tough and play knock-out rugby set them apart. They are not a side loaded with star talent, but the way they find ways to hang tough is astonishing.

They were drifting out of the contest against the Rebels only to continually conjure something from nothing to keep scoring and clawing their way back in.

They kept coming up with critical plays, none more so than the thumping tackle Waisake Naholo made in the last play of the game to stop Jack Debreczini dead in his tracks.

It's that desire and collective will to play for one another that makes the Highlanders such a good bet to make the last four.

They will fancy their chances on the road and they will have a mindset not to let the travel bother them.

Their road to the last four will probably be the toughest – tougher even than the pathway the Chiefs must follow.

They will be off to Wellington to play the Hurricanes, but in all honesty, that isn't looking the daunting challenge it should be.

The Chiefs beat them in Hamilton in Friday with half their first team missing, and with Sam Cane back, possibly Nepo Laulala and Nathan Harris, the visitors will believe they can win that all critical battle up front.

And of course Damian McKenzie will be back, bringing a whole new dimension to their attack. The Chiefs have another gear to find while the Canes looked tired and disjointed in Hamilton.

Beauden Barrett had one of his worst game of the season and the Canes couldn't get their basics right.

They look vulnerable, unlike the Crusaders, who look anything but vulnerable. At home, they are just about unbeatable.

The Rebels, who threw everything at the Highlanders and actually played particularly well, don't have enough to be serious about winning. Nowhere near enough. Nor do the Jaguares or Lions.

The Hurricanes don't either and nor do the Waratahs – not in Christchurch anyway.

The Highlanders could cause plenty of problems but as they showed last week, not enough and really there is one team in the competition capable of beating the Crusaders in Christchurch and that is the Chiefs.

They have the quality of personnel in their pack to stand up to Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Sam Whitelock, Kieran Read and their other All Blacks mates.

Highlanders 43 (W. Naholo, K. Hamington, T. Walden, T. Li, G. Pleasants-Tate, T. Franklin tries; L. Sopoaga pen, 5 cons)

Rebels 37 (A. Mafi, R. Hodge (3) tries; R. Hodge, 4 cons; J. Debriczini pen)

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