Highlanders squeeze into playoffs

Ethan de Groot gets the legs pumping against the Rebels in Melbourne. Photo: Getty Images
Ethan de Groot gets the legs pumping against the Rebels in Melbourne. Photo: Getty Images
Call it the best one-point loss the Highlanders have ever had.

They have done it the hard way but they are in the playoffs and will head to Auckland to play the Blues on Saturday night.

The Highlanders only needed to avoid defeat by eight points or more when they played the Rebels in Melbourne this afternoon, and they obliged with a 31-30 loss that gave them a bonus point.

That left the Highlanders and Force tied in eight place on 23 points, the Kiwis progressing with a vastly superior points difference.

It was not one of the great games of Super Rugby, thanks to several delays for scrum resets and a litany of handling errors.

When the Highlanders were good in the first half, they were very good — generally when barnstorming No 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u had the ball in his hands.

They made a cracking start when winger Rory van Vugt grabbed his first career try after just three minutes, and led 12-0 after 20 minutes when Josh Dickson crossed the line.

The Rebels responded with a try from a lineout drive, and after Marty Banks kicked a penalty, the Rebels closed the gap to a single point when Glen Vaihu swooped on a poor Aaron Smith pass.

Banks added another three to give the Highlanders an 18-14 lead at halftime, but they should arguably have been ahead by plenty more.

There was a five-minute spell in the second half when it appeared the resurgent Rebels were going to spoil the party.

They scored a stunner through fullback Nick Jooste to take the lead, and forged ahead to 26-18 when Lukas Ripley showed juggling skills to cross out wide.

Fortunately, for the Highlanders, Mikaele-Tu’u then staged another big break and halfback Folau Fakatava was on hand to score.

Fakatava promptly carved off a huge break of his own, and when the move ended in a Fetuli Paea try, the Highlanders looked safe with a lead of 30-26.

There was time for one more twist, Young Tonumaipea scoring to give the Rebels their 31-30 lead, and while the Australians got the ball back near the end of the game, they were happy to kick it out to take the win.

The other Super Rugby quarterfinals will feature the Crusaders-Reds, the Chiefs-Waratahs and the Brumbies-Hurricanes.

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