The Highlanders have got back to winning ways by holding off a strong-finishing Melbourne Rebels to secure a 33-30 Super Rugby victory in Dunedin.
Melbourne fullback Jason Woodward scored with three minutes to go and then landed the sideline conversion to close the margin to three points.
But the Rebels, who last season overcame a 24-point deficit to beat the Highlanders 38-37, couldn’t complete the comeback.
Instead, the match ended with the Highlanders turning down two penalty shots at goal in a bid to get a bonus-point fourth try.
A match between two sides who began the round in the bottom half of the table was punctuated by a number of scrum penalties.
The injury-hit Rebels also had to battle the disruption of losing first five-eighth Bryce Hegarty in just the second minute.
Hegarty left the field after he fell awkwardly while contesting a high ball and knocking his head on the ground.
But the visitors still managed to open the scoring with an excellent team try.
A patient series of phases was finished off by former Highlanders flanker Scott Fuglistaller after a neat break by halfback Nic Stirzaker.
The home side made use of a big territorial advantage to strike back with tries to in-form flanker Shane Christie and livewire halfback Aaron Smith.
Smith helped to create the first by opting for a quick tap penalty in a handy goal-kicking position, and he then jinked his way over from close to the line for the second.
Down 20-13 at halftime, the Rebels tied the scores with a touchdown set up by skipper Scott Higginbotham.
The stand-out No.8 snared an intercept inside his own 22 and then produced a deft kick-ahead that replacement first five Angus Roberts pounced on to dot down.
First five Lima Sopoaga pushed the Highlanders back in front with a penalty, and their decision to turn down another penalty attempt minutes later paid dividends with a try to fullback Ben Smith.
The Rebels last season overcame a 24-point deficit to beat the Highlanders 38-37 at AAMI Park but there was no repeat on Friday night.
Coach Tony McGahan lamented their inability to clear the ball from their 22 with their woeful kicking game putting unwanted pressure on the side.
“We fought really well all night on both sides of the ball but unfortunately every time we scored points we were unable to exit our bottom end and that put us under pressure and they were able to get points pretty easily,” McGahan said
“It’s a big one for use to lose and we need to make sure our nines, 10s and 15s are controlling that part of the field.”
He said that Hegarty had recovered well but concussion protocol would dictate whether he would be available for their clash with the champion Chiefs next round.
Despite the win, halfback Smith was in no mood to celebrate his 50th game for the Highlanders.
“It was an awesome night but I’m gutted, I gave them two tries and I’m pretty gutted about that.
“We were humming along and just silly mistakes, missed tackle and an intercept, wrecked my night,” he told Fairfax.
“We got the win in the end and I’m just very happy the boys showed some spirit in that last 10 minutes.”