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In their final game of the 2013 Super Rugby season, Dunedin's Highlanders travelled to Melbourne to take on the RaboDirect Rebels at AAMI Park on Saturday night.
The Highlanders side featured a wealth of All Blacks, while there were no shortage of departing Rebels to be honoured, however both sides were out of finals contention and were playing for pride alone in front of 12,500 vocal fans.
The Highlanders were out to spoil the party from the outset, and in-form All Black Ben Smith was able to cross over for the first try of the game just seven minutes in. Colin Slade's kick was good as the visitors shot out to an early lead.
But it didn't take long for the hosts to hit back. A fantastic team try was finished off by Tom English in the corner, as he combined with Jason Woodward and Bryce Hegarty to show just how exciting this young backline could be for years to come. Woodward comfortably slotted the kick, after missing an early penalty attempt, to restore parity.
In a seesawing contest, the physicality belied the 'dead rubber' nature of the match, and it was through sheer brute strength that winger Hosea Gear stormed through for the Highlanders' second try of the match in the 20th minute. Slade was again on target with the kick, and he extended the advantage to ten when he converted a simple penalty just five minutes later.
Scott Fuglistaller went off with an injured shoulder, replaced by Jordy Reid, and the momentum was sitting well and truly with the visitors as the half hour mark hit. Tamati Ellison dotted down for the Highlanders' third and Tony Woodcock assured the visitors of a bonus point when he crossed on the siren for their fourth try.
Slade slotted both kicks, and at half time the Highlanders held a substantial 31-7 lead. Departing Head Coach Damien Hill would have been left with plenty to say as he tried to rally his troops for an improbable second half fight back.
And whatever he said certainly provided the necessary tonic. Cooper Vuna crossed over in the 47th minute for his twelfth Rebels' try, and Woodward's conversion from the touchline was hit perfectly to reduce the arrears. James O'Connor, in his 50th Super Rugby match, joined the fray in place of Angus Roberts and Paul Alo-Emile replaced Laurie Weeks as the Rebels looked to continue to bridge the gap, but the Highlanders responded instantly through another penalty goal from Slade.
The Rebels were pushing hard for a third try, and it was lucky number thirteen for Vuna as he capitalised on great field position to score his second of the night right under the posts. Luke Jones, a replacement for Jarrod Saffy, pushed the Rebels within range after brilliantly pulling in a Hegarty bomb, and great work from Gareth Delve at the scrum saw Nick Phipps and James O'Connor combine to get the ball to the former Wallaby winger. Woodward added the conversion, and the equation was simple for the home side - two converted tries in twenty minutes would get the job done.
The equation halved when English scored his second of the evening after Phipps took a quick tap and Woodward kicked the conversion, and the crowd roared at unprecedented levels as an amazing turnaround edged closer to reality.
It became painstakingly close when Hegarty scored the Rebels' fifth of the evening, and his first for the club, but Woodward pulled the conversion to the left and just one minute later Highlanders' replacement Hayden Parker calmed slotted a penalty goal - the Rebels needed to score another try as they trailed by four points!
Cometh the hour, cometh the man as Hegarty somehow got over his second of the night to seal an incredible victory for the Rebels as the siren blared in the background. With a Welsh flag in the crowd and Vuna holding the ball down for him, fan favourite Delve had a crack at the conversion and although it went wide an incredible comeback was complete.
The Rebels secured their fifth victory of the season, a record for the club, with a nail-biting backs to the wall 38-37 result.
Thousands of loyal fans and members stayed behind to watch presentations to exiting and retiring players, as the Rebels honoured the many departees.
Captain Gareth Delve, Cooper Vuna and Ged Robinson all head overseas, while James O'Connor and Nick Phipps were also playing for the Club for the last time.
Tim Davidson (retiring), James King and Richard Kingi (both overseas) weren't able to get on the field for a final Rebels appearance, but big prop Nic Henderson was able to start for the final time in his professional career. Hill and Senior Assistant Coach John Muggleton were in the coaches box for the final time, and club doctor Tracey Peters was also finishing up; there was an incredible emotional feel to the evening.
Delve believed it was, in some ways, typical of the Rebels to finish off with such a nail-biting win.
"We give ourselves such mountains to climb sometimes, but if we take that out of our game we will be very hard to beat next year" he said. "There's character in this team and that shined through tonight."
Delve was excited, exhausted and reflective all at the same time post-match.
"I've been trying not to think about it being my last game here all week. My sister is over from the UK, and she has been asking me all day how I've been feeling! I read a quote that said 'Don't cry because it's over, smile because it's happened', and that's it. This has been the best three years of my life."
Hill was immensely proud of his charges, and grateful for the opportunity to be involved with the club over the course of the last three years.
"It's a very capable playing group with a lot of enthusiasm and trust in each other, and I think they showed us how close they are in their last forty minutes," he said. "I couldn't be prouder of the result tonight given the score at halftime and the fightback in the second half.
"I really encourage the supporters to get behind the new coach and push this team on to bigger and better things. I will definitely miss this; the emotions you go through in every game, while the lows can be hard, the highs are fantastic."
Foundation Rebel Hugh Pyle has played a starring role in the Rebels' season, and he is confident in his role as one of the future leaders that the club can continue to grow.
"Hilly has done a fantastic job since the start of the season in bringing through Scott Higginbotham, Laurie Weeks and myself and there is so much we have learnt from the guys who are leaving that we can take to next year."
Pyle admitted sending the departees off with a win was crucial ahead of tonight.
"It was fairly massive to send them off with a win. We went into the sheds at half time and you could see in the boys' faces that we hadn't done what we needed to do. I think it was a huge emotional response that really helped us in the second half."
For the Rebels now, it is a well earnt rest for the majority of players as they look to come back bigger and better in season 2014.
The Club would like to formally recognise and congratulate Head Coach, Damien Hill, and Senior Assistant Coach, John Muggleton, Team Doctor, Tracy Peters, and departing Rebels players Gareth Delve, Nic Henderson, Tim Davidson, Ged Robinson, Nick Phipps, Richard Kingi, Cooper Vuna, James King and James O'Connor, who also made his 20th appearance for the Rebels, and his 50th in Super Rugby.
RaboDirect Rebels v Highlanders
Friday 12 July, AAMI Park, Melbourne
Referee: Andrew Lees
RaboDirect Rebels 38-37 Highlanders
RaboDirect Rebels - Tries: English (2), Vuna (2), Hegarty (2) Con: Woodward (4)
Highlanders - Tries: Smith, Gear, Ellison, Woodcock, Con: Slade (4) Pen: Slade (2), Parker
1. Nic Henderson, 2. Ged Robinson, 3. Laurie Weeks, 4. Hugh Pyle, 5. Cadeyrn Neville, 6. Jarrod Saffy, 7. Scott Fuglistaller, 8. Gareth Delve (captain), 9. Nick Phipps, 10. Bryce Hegarty, 11. Cooper Vuna, 12. Rory Sidey, 13. Tom English, 14. Jason Woodward, 15. Angus Roberts, 16. Shota Horie, 17. Paul Alo-Emile, 18. Luke Jones, 19. Jordy Reid, 20. Nic Stirzaker, 21. James O'Connor, 23. Kimami Sitauti
Coach: Damien Hill
1. Tony Woodcock, 2. Andrew Hore (captain), 3. Ma'afu Fia, 4. Brad Thorn, 5. Josh Bekhuis, 6. TJ Ioane, 7. Elliot Dixon, 8. Mose Tuiali'i, 9. Aaron Smith, 10. Colin Slade, 11. Hosea Gear (vc), 12. Tamati Ellison, 13. Jason Emery, 14. Kade Poki, 15. Ben Smith, 16. Liam Coltman, 17. Bronson Murray, 18. Jake Paringatai, 19. Joe Wheeler, 20. Fumiaki Tanaka, 21. Hayden Parker, 22. Shaun Treeby