Melbourne have edged the Highlanders 31-30 in their final round clash but the Kiwi team grabbed a bonus point to leapfrog the Western Force into the Super Rugby Pacific finals.
The Force did all they could to clinch the eighth spot in the play-offs with a upset win over the finals-bound Hurricanes on Saturday night in Perth.
But they were relying on the Rebels to beat the Highlanders in their Sunday afternoon clash at AAMI Park while stopping the visitors collecting a losing bonus point for finishing within seven points.
Watching on as a team from Perth, the Force rode every moment before the Highlanders moved through to take on the Blues in the quarter-finals.
Former Melbourne Storm flyer Young Tonumaipea secured the one-point lead when he scored in the 75th minute, pouncing on a Joe Powell grubber kick into the in-goal area.
The Rebels hunted another try but after earning a fulltime penalty opted to kick the ball dead rather than risk losing the match.
They ended the season 10th overall, three points out of the eight and left to rue a three-point loss after the siren to the Chiefs.
"I'm really, really chuffed, we had to hang in and showed some character again," said Rebels coach Kevin Foote.
"We haven't got all the results we wanted but it's been a big building block for us as a club, and some youngsters who have come through so I'm really proud for the guys to get the W."
A former assistant coach at Western Force, Foote felt for their outgoing coach Tim Sampson and veteran skipper Ian Prior but said they should also be proud of their season finish.
Melbourne trailed 18-14 at halftime but hit the front through young fullback Nick Jooste, who replaced injured Wallaby Reece Hodge (cork).
That went out to 26-18 when winger Lukas Ripley juggled a Matt Toomua pass over the line.
But they saw that lead evaporate in the 66th minute when the Highlanders scored their fourth try to go ahead 30-26.
Folau Fakatava continued his super sub role, turning the game on his head after replacing starting halfback Aaron Smith in the 59th minute.
He scored a try two minutes after his arrival and then helped set one up for winger Fetuli Paea which put the Highlanders ahead.
But the Rebels stormed back to ensure they at least finished their rollercoaster season on a high.
After also losing to the Waratahs last round, Highlanders coach Tony Brown said his team needed to rediscover their mojo before Saturday's clash with the Blues, who topped the standings.
"I wish we were playing better rugby, I wish we were enjoying our rugby more as a rugby team but we're just not quite on top of our game and we've got to find it in six days time," Brown said.
"We will embrace the underdog tag, as Highlanders it suits us, and we've just got to find a way to win."
TRIES: Uelese, Vaihu, Jooste, Ripley, Tonumaipea
CONS: To'omua 3/5
TRIES: Van Vugt, Dickson, Fakatava, Paea
CONS: Banks 1/2, Koroi 1/2
PENS: Banks 2/2
MELBOURNE REBELS V HIGHLANDERS TEAMS
Rebels: 15 Reece Hodge, 14 Lukas Ripley, 13 Andrew Kellaway, 12 Matt To’omua, 11 Glen Vaihu, 10 Carter Gordon, 9 James Tuttle, 8 Rob Leota, 7 Brad Wilkin, 6 Michael Wells (captain), 5 Josh Canham, 4 Matt Philip, 3 Pone Fa’amausili, 2 Jordan Uelese, 1 Matt Gibbon.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Cameron Orr, 18 Cabous Eloff, 19 Ross Haylett-Petty, 20 Richard Hardwick, 21 Joe Powell, 22 Daniel Maiava 23. Young Tonumaipea
Highlanders: 15 Liam Coombes-Fabling, 14 Fetuli Paea, 13 Josh Timu, 12 Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 11 Rory van Vugt, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith (co-captain), 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 7 Billy Harmon, 6 James Lentjes (co-captain), 5 Josh Dickson, 4 Bryn Evans, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Andrew Makalio, 1 Ethan de Groot.
Replacements:16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Saula Ma’u, 19 Sam Caird, 20 Hugh Renton, 21 Folau Fakatava, 22 Vilimoni Koroi, 23 Denny Solomona.
Referee: Jordan Way
Assistant referees: Nic Berry, Matt Kellahan