Rebels' Super Rugby finals hopes on brink

Daniel Gilhooly
Melbourne Rebels' Super Rugby finals dreams have been dashed after a 43-37 loss to the Highlanders

A virtuoso Reece Hodge display wasn't enough as the Melbourne Rebels fell 43-37 to the Highlanders, leaving their Super Rugby finals hopes teetering.

Another result must now go the Rebels' way if they are to reach the play-offs for the first time after blowing sizeable leads in each half in Dunedin on Saturday.

Up 17-3 early and then 34-22 entering the final quarter, they leaked three late tries to suffer a third-straight loss.

They will miss the play-offs if the ninth-placed Sharks beat the Jaguares in Durban on Sunday morning (AEST).

A Rebels bonus point means the Brumbies' slim finals hopes have ended.

Regardless the outcome for the Rebels, few could doubt the commitment of Hodge.

The makeshift five-eighth scored 29 points, including three of his team's four tries and a six-from-six goalkicking return.

Two of his tries came from charge-downs as Hodge took advantage of the inexperience in a Highlanders backline, which was without several of their rested All Blacks.

The Rebels were also missing three key injured Wallabies along with English lock Geoff Parling yet they threatened an upset all night at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

A match-winning try loomed as the visitors broke down the right after the final hooter but it was halted by a brutal tackle from star Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo on fullback Jack Maddocks.

A "gutted" Hodge said his team's hot-and-cold effort mirrored their season.

"There were patches of that game where we played as we know we can and there were patches - like throughout the year - that let us down," he told Sky Sports.

"It's not 100 per cent over for us. Some of the boys will be up in the early hours of the morning watching but it's pretty disappointing right now."

Melbourne opened a helter-skelter first half, with tries to Amanaki Mafi and Hodge to be 17-3 up, although they lost prop Fereti Sa'aga to injury.

Momentum switched when Melbourne halfback Michael Ruru was shown a questionable yellow card for a foot trip on Lima Sopoaga.

Naholo and Kayne Hammington capitalised on the one-man advantage with tries to level the scores.

Hodge bagged the first of his charge-down tries before Teihorangi Walden responded to leave the Highlanders 24-22 down at the break.

Hodge's third try and a penalty preceded the late Highlanders charge, which crafted tries to Tevita Li, Greg Pleasants-Tate and Tom Franklin.

Rebels skipper Tom English said he would try to keep his players' spirits high as they awaited the Durban result.

"We've just got to be bigger and better next time if we get the chance next week," he said.

The Highlanders are guaranteed to finish sixth and will be away to either the Waratahs, Lions or Jaguares in next week's quarter-finals.