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DUNEDIN, New Zealand (AP) — Replacement scrumhalf Folau Fakatava dashed from a scrum in the final minute to score a match-winning try for the Dunedin-based Highlanders who kept alive their playoff hopes in Super Rugby Pacific with a 35-30 win Friday over the Queensland Reds.
The Reds led 27-14 in the 58th minute and seemed to be in control of a match they also needed to win to solidify their challenge for a quarterfinal place.
But the Highlanders produced an outstanding rally, scoring two late tries through players who came off the bench.
Prop Saula Ma’u scored on the hour to cut the Reds’ lead to 27-21, then Connor Garden-Bachop scored to give the Highlanders the lead at 28-27.
Flyhalf Tom Lynagh kicked a 74th-minute penalty — his sixth successful goal from as many attempts — to wrest back the lead for the Reds at 30-28.
But from a scrum that was likely to be the last play of the match, Fakatava ran to the short side and found the defense lacking, scoring in the right hand corner .
In doing so he ensured the Highlanders could properly celebrate the career of the man he had replaced, All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith.
Smith was playing his 184th match and his last home match for the Highlanders in a 13-year career. The Highlanders’ match against the Auckland-based Blues next weekend will be his last overall and now will be full of significance.
The Highlanders’ win lifted them to eighth place in the standings, just behind the seventh-place Reds with one regular-season round remaining.
“What a finish, unbelievable,” Highlanders captain Billy Harmon said. “We needed that win.
“We talked about it in the locker room, that in the second half we just had to keep fighting. The physicality was there. We just needed to execute and we did. What a way to send off (Smith) for his last home game.”
For most of the match the Reds were in command. They started explosively with two tries in the first 11 minutes.
Captain Liam Wright dislocated his shoulder in the act of scoring in the 8th minute and had to leave the field.
His replacement Jake Updike scored the second try, which was one of the best of the season, started by No. 8 Harry Wilson only meters from own tryline.
Wilson broke out, dummied the Highlanders’ fullback and then linked with center James O’Connor, who tip-toed along the touchline before passing infield to keep the move alive. Updike was on hand to take the last pass and score.
Wilson put in another massive 80-minute shift. He came into the match on top of the tournament list for carries with 165 and added another 20 in a rousing performance. He also figured strongly in defense.
The Highlanders rallied first from 14-0 down to level the score with tries to winger Jonah Nareki and backrower Hugh Renton.
The Reds went ahead again just before halftime with a try to Suliasi Vunivalu and stretched their lead with two Lynagh penalties.
They seemed on the verge of their second-win over the Highlanders in Dunedin, their first since 2013. But the Highlanders’ emotional mission to send off Smith with a win carried them to victory.
In the later match, the 10th-place Melbourne Rebels ran in eight tries to hurt the Western Force’s finals aspirations with a 52-14 win at home.
The result left four teams in contention for the last two spots in the quarterfinals, allowing the Reds (24 points) to remain in seventh place and Western Force dropped (22 points) to ninth, one out of the playoffs spots with one round to go.
The Rebels (21 points) take on the Brumbies in Canberra in the last round of the regular season and the Force will need to beat the league-leading Chiefs in Perth next weekend to have any chance of securing a place in the quarterfinals.
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