An emotional Reds outfit have fallen just short of an upset against the Highlanders, going down 36-31 in Dunedin after conceding a lead late in the match.
In a courageous tribute to his family, Wallabies lock Izack Rodda took the field just two days after the death of his father.
The loss was a bitter pill for the Reds, who were banded together to play for Rodda and his family.
The towering lock was one of the Reds' best and led their revival after scoring a second-half try that helped the visitors claw back to within five points after the Highlanders looked as though they could run away with the game early in the second half.
Rodda had insisted on playing the match and his efforts inspired the Reds, who fought back into the lead after debutant Feao Fotuaika crossed soon after Rodda, with Bryce Hegarty's conversion in the 59th minute giving them a lead they would not concede until the dying stages as Dillon Hunt scampered over to seal a Highlanders win.
Reds captain Samu Kerevi paid tribute to Rodda.
"My heart goes out to him and his family," Kerevi said.
"He's a very strong guy. He heard the news and still wanted to play the game today and played extremely well."
Brad Thorn is not a great fan of courageous losses.
But the coach would have seen enough signs to suggest that the Reds can improve on their 13th placing from last season.
A strengthened defence, strong scrum and pilfered ball at the lineout were good indications of the off-season progress.
But there is still much to work on, with aimless kicking and some of the poor discipline that cost the team in the past creeping into the visitors' game.
Kerevi made it clear his team would not be content with praise for effort.
"We don't like to use any excuses," Kerevi said.
"We just lacked in those key moments to be mentally on."
A Moses Sorovi try in the moment before halftime had kept the Reds in the hunt after the New Zealand side looked to be stamping their authority on the game late in the first half.
Sorovi had scampered over to finish a classy backline move, with Hegarty's conversion clawing the halftime deficit back to a converted try, the Highlanders leading 24-17 at the break.
But there was no reprieve after the break, with outstanding flanker Shannon Frizell scoring the second of his tries to give his team a 29-17 lead and threaten to shut the Reds out of the match.
A Hegarty conversion gave the Reds the first score of the match in their season-opener but the Highlanders hit back quickly as Rob Thompson crossed on the back of a penalty.
The Reds had been guilty of giving away possession cheaply when winger Chris Feauai-Sautia grubber kicked from deep in his own half after the Reds' refusal to kick from inside their own 22.
And he repeated the action just minutes later, with only the outstretched hand of Jordan Petaia preventing another Highlanders five-pointer.
Petaia was lucky to stay on the field given the home side had an overlap out wide but was given the benefit of the doubt by referee Frederico Anselmi.
Feauai-Sautia made up for it after running in the Reds' first try of the season though, benefiting from some classy play from Fotuaika and Samu Kerevi in the midfield and brushing off a Highlanders defender before planting the ball under the sticks.
At 10-10 the match seemed as though it would become a grind but the Highlanders ran in two quick tries, to Shannon Frizell and Ben Smith and the Reds looked in trouble.
But a third lineout win against the throw led to Sorovi's try and gave the visitors hope of an upset.
Tries: Frizell 2, Thompson, B Smith, Hunt
Cons: Ioane 4
Tries: Feauai-Sautia, Sorovi, Rodda, Fotuaika
Cons: Hegarty 3, Stewart