The Melbourne Rebels led for all of 10 seconds against the Highlanders in their final Super Rugby game of the season. But it was when it mattered the most, with Bryce Hegarty scoring the try that secured what had until that moment looked the most unlikely of fairytale farewells to coach Damien Hill and a group of players when they beat the Highlanders 38-37 at AAMI Park.
The game looked over at half-time when the Highlanders took a 31-7 lead and four-try bonus point to the break, but for all their deficiencies – and there were plenty in the first 40 minutes – the Rebels have developed into a team that rarely gives up without a fight.
And on cue, they staged a second-half comeback with departing winger Cooper Vuna, Tom English and Hegarty all scoring doubles with James O’Connor showing, when all his reported divisive off-field issues are put to one side, just what he can do on the field.
In fact, it was a perfect audition for O’Connor after he was told by the Rebels earlier this week that he was no longer wanted by the club.
O’Connor came on to the field early in the second half after starting on the bench, having not trained with the team early in the week following his heavily criticised role in the British and Irish Lions series.
But the 23-year-old, who could return to the Western Force or play overseas next year, showed his worth by setting up three second-half tries with brilliant final passes to Vuna, English and Hegarty.
The Hegarty try narrowed the Highlanders’ lead to 34-33 but Jason Woodward’s conversion attempt veered off course.
The game then looked over when the Rebels gave away a penalty which Hayden Parker nailed to give the Highlanders a 37-33 lead with five minutes remaining.
But the Rebels had one more move when Vuna made a break on the left wing and then looped a pass to Hegarty, who joined Vuna and English in scoring a double.
The siren sounded moments later and with the Rebels ahead 38-37. Departing skipper Gareth Delve took the final conversion attempt, but hooked it way to the right.
The game marked the last in Rebels colours for a number of players including Delve, O’Connor, Nick Phipps, Ged Robinson, Nic Henderson and Vuna while James King, Tim Davidson and Richard Kingi did not play.
There is still uncertainty as to where the troubled Kurtley Beale will be playing next year.
It was also the final game for Hill after it was announced during the week he would be replaced by Wallabies assistant Tony McGahan from next season.
The players had talked about the emotion of farewelling so many who had done so much to build the club. That was possibly a distraction in the end because the Rebels put in one of their worse performances of the year during the first half.
The Rebels showed their intentions early by spreading the ball and making busts through some poor defence.
They had their first scoring opportunity within the first three minutes when the Rebels took advantage of a Scott Fuglistaller steal when Jarrod Saffy made a break and onloaded to Vuna who was tackled without the ball.
Delve chose to take the penalty shot but Woodward pulled his shot wide.
The miss came back to haunt the Rebels a couple of minutes later when the Highlanders, who showed some attack in beating the Hurricanes last weekend, put together a series of phases that ended with a mismatch in defence for the Rebels with second-rower Cadeyrn Neville defending one-on-one against Highlanders full-back Ben Smith.
Smith put on a side step to leave Neville grasping at air and watching Smith force his way over the line in the tackle of Hegarty to score. Colin Slade made the conversion to give the Highlanders a 7-0 lead after five minutes.
However, if the Rebels defence had been bad, the Highlanders was worse three minutes later when they let English, playing outside centre as a replacement for the injured Mitch Inman, push his way through a series of would-be tacklers to score.
The lead-up for the Rebels had been impressive, with the initial break from Woodward and nice off-load from Hegarty to English.
Woodward added the conversion to level scores after nine minutes.
The Highlanders scored further tries to Tamati Ellison and Tony Woodcock before the Rebels’ second-half onslaught secured them 12th place on the ladder for this season.
Rebels 38 d Highlanders 37
Scorers – Rebels: English 2, Hegarty 2, Vuna 2 tries; Woodward 4 cons. Highlanders: Ellison, Gear, Smith, Woodcock tries; Slade 4 cons, Slade 2, Parker pens
Crowd: 12,485, at AAMI Park
ALSO ON FRIDAY NIGHT
Ellis, Guildford, Marshall tries;
Carter 2 cons 2 pens
Savea, Shields, Vito tries; Taylor con
Blues v Chiefs (Eden Park, 5.35pm)
Waratahs v Reds (ANZ Stadium, 7.40pm)
Force v Brumbies (NIB Stadium, 9.45pm)
Sharks v Kings (Durban, 1.05am)
Stormers v Bulls (Cape Town, 3.10am)
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.