Highlanders hold off the Rebels' challenge
The accurate boot of Lima Sopoaga has kicked the Highlanders to their third win of the season.
Sopoaga landed seven of his nine attempts for a personal haul of 18 points in a 33-30 win over the Melbourne Rebels in Dunedin tonight.
A timely return to some of his best form by hooker Liam Coltman was just the spark the Highlanders needed after being rumbled off the park by the Blues at Eden Park last weekend.
Coltman was a tiger at the breakdown, with good support from the likes of Shane Christie and Gareth Evans in a stop-start affair in front of 9501 - the Highlanders' smallest crowd of the season - under the roof in Dunedin.
Despite the win, Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith was in no mood to celebrate his 50th game for the franchise.
''It was an awesome night but I'm gutted, I gave them two tries and I'm pretty gutted about that. We were humming along and just silly mistakes, missed tackle and an intercept, wrecked my night,'' he said.
''We got the win in the end and I'm just very happy the boys showed some spirit in that last 10 minutes. If we gave them that try with five minutes to go it might have been a different game.''
The Highlanders' third win in six games matches their total number of wins during a wretched 2013.
The match began ominously for the Highlanders with the Rebels scoring the first try of the match to lead 7-0 after as many minutes. A neat break by chippy Rebels halfback Nick Stirzaker and a well timed offload saw one-time Highlanders flanker Scott Fuglistaller cross for the first try.
That effort came soon after the Highlanders were lucky not to concede another intercept try when Scott Higginbotham latched onto a Ben Smith pass before tripping before he could get into his stride.
The Highlanders struck back through Christie, who picked and went after Aaron Smith's quick tap at the 15 minute mark and they took the lead when the All Black halfback marked his 50th Super Rugby appearance with a try after a great pick from Coltman.
The Rebels, who have had a bad run of injuries already this season, had to overcome the early loss of first-five Bryce Hegarty after he fell heavily under a challenge from Richard Buckman.
Hegarty's replacement Angus Roberts also came off during the first half, forcing a hasty reshuffle of the Rebels' backline, but he was able to return after passing a concussion test.
The Rebels looked like a zombie movie when trying to clear the ball from their own 22m, but the Highlanders were just as guilty when it came to giving away some weak penalties.
Several of those were for dubious scrum calls, but having shown good discipline for most of the season, the Highlanders were giving away too many penalties, especially with a kicker like Jason Woodward in the opposition.
Higginbotham intercepted and chipped for a try to Roberts which saw the Rebels level at 20-all.
The turning point came with half an hour to go when another quick tap by Aaron Smith saw Ben Smith use some nice footwork to score the Highlanders' third try.
Earlier the Highlanders had opted to kick to the sideline and they were rewarded for their adventure after a handful of drives at the line before the ball was eventually shifted wide to Smith.
The Rebels kept it close during the second half, through a combination of Woodward's kicking and the sort of small but costly Highlanders errors which keep things interesting in the home team's coaching box.
Woodward grabbed a try with four minutes to go and converted from the sideline, but the Highlanders managed to hold on.
Highlanders 33 (Shane Christie, Aaron Smith, Ben Smith tries; Lima Sopoaga 4 pen, 3 con) Melbourne Rebels 30 (Scott Fuglistaller, Angus Roberts, Jason Woodward tries; Woodward 3 con, 3 pen). HT: 20-13