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A superior tight five effort and the rub of the green won the day for the Highlanders, who conceded a try after 25 seconds but bounced back to record a third straight win.
Both teams scored three tries at Rugby Park but nine points from the boot of first five-eighth Matt Berquist proved decisive, keeping the Highlanders firmly in the playoff hunt with a four win-four loss record.
A Reds side who have been hammered by the Chiefs and Western Force in their last two outings, produced a far more sustained effort.
They were the more enterprising side but couldn't shake the history books as they suffered a seventh loss from seven matches away to the Highlanders. It was also their 22nd loss in 23 visits to New Zealand since 1999.
Coming off a bye, the Highlanders were rusty but attempted to reproduce the dominant forward effort of their last start defeat of the Bulls.
The relied largely on pick-and-gos and rarely went wide, with the exception of a delightful try to winger Kendrick Lynn that gave them the lead with half an hour remaining.
They trailed 10-12 at halftime despite dominating the first spell and needed to hang tough late as the Reds threatened victory.
It was expected the cold southern conditions wouldn't suit the men from Australia's sunshine state but that wasn't apparent in the opening exchange.
The hosts were stunned by first five-eighth Quade Cooper's early try, set up by a break from second five-eighth Berrick Barnes and a divine flick pass by fullback Mark McLinden.
It was a rare Reds attacking foray in the first spell, with the Highlanders pack grabbing control and setting up a Berquist penalty and try to impressive Southland lock Josh Bekhuis.
However, aggressive Reds lock Hugh McMeniman gave his side the lead at the break when he powered through two tacklers.
The Highlanders' best try in the 50th minute handed them a lead they weren't to relinquish.
It came from inside their own half via a bust from second five-eighth Daniel Bowden -- seemingly aided by obstruction from flanker Alando Soakai on Reds opposite Daniel Braid. Bowden found centre Jason Shoemark who linked brilliantly with Lynn.
It was 20min before the Highlanders extended their lead when No 8 George Naoupu burrowed over.
The tries to both Bekhuis and Naoupu carried an element of doubt about the grounding but both were awarded by the third match official.
Queensland kept life interesting over the final 8min when centre Digby Ioane capitalised on some sweet buildup work from halves Cooper and Barnes but they didn't threaten again.
The Highlanders are away to the Blues on Friday next week while the Reds host the Lions in Brisbane.