Tevita Li of the Highlanders fends off Tom English of the Rebels. Picture: Getty Images
Tevita Li of the Highlanders fends off Tom English of the Rebels. Picture: Getty Images

Rebels face nervous wait after heartbreaking loss

A VIRTUOSO Reece Hodge display wasn't enough as the Rebels fell 43-37 to the Highlanders, leaving the Melbourne side's Super Rugby finals hopes teetering.

Another result must now go the Rebels' way if they are to reach the playoffs for the first time, after blowing sizeable leads in each half in Dunedin on Saturday.

Up 17-3 early and then 34-22 entering the final quarter, they leaked three late tries to suffer a third straight loss.

It will mean they miss the playoffs if the ninth-placed Sharks beat the Jaguares in Durban on Sunday morning (game start at 1.15am AEST).

A bonus point to the Rebels means the Brumbies' slim finals hopes have ended.

Regardless of the outcome for the Rebels, few could doubt the commitment of five-eighth Hodge, who scored 29 points including three of his team's four tries.

Two of them came from charge-downs as Hodge took advantage of the inexperience in a Highlanders backline that was without several of their rested All Blacks.

The Rebels were also missing three key injured Wallabies along with English lock Geoff Parling, yet they threatened an upset all night at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

A match-winning try loomed as the visitors broke down the right after the final hooter but it was halted by a brutal tackle from star Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo on fullback Jack Maddocks.

It leaves the Rebels with a seven win, nine loss record, matching their best ever return.

Melbourne opened a helter skelter first half with tries to Amanaki Mafi and Hodge to be 17-3 up, although they lost prop Fereti Sa'aga to injury.

Momentum switched when Melbourne halfback Michael Ruru was shown a questionable yellow card for a foot trip on Lima Sopoaga.

Naholo and Kayne Hammington both capitalised on the one man advantage with tries to level the scores.

Hodge bagged the first of his charge-down tries before Teihorangi Walden responded to leave the Highlanders 24-22 down at the break.

Hodge's third try and a penalty pushed his team 12 points clear before the Highlanders hit another gear through Tevita Li, Greg Pleasants-Tate and Tom Franklin.

The Highlanders are guaranteed to finish sixth and will be away to either the Waratahs, Lions or Jaguares in next week's quarter-finals.

HIGHLANDERS 43 (Tom Franklin, Kayne Hammington, Tevita Li, Waisake Naholo, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Tei Walden tries; Lima Sopoaga 5 con, pen) REBELS 37 (Reece Hodge 3, Amanaki Mafi tries; Hodge 4 con, Hodge 2, Jack Debreczeni pen)

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