The Highlanders eased to a comfortable 27-3 bonus-point win over the Rebels in Melbourne on Saturday.
The defending champions will be pleased with the scoreline but not so much the performance, and yet they were still good enough to score three unanswered tries to come away with five log points on the road.
Like they did the against the Bulls three weeks ago, the Rebels again displayed good fighting spirit in the second half but the a remarkable defensive effort by the Highlanders kept them at bay to squash any hopes of a comeback.
The Highlanders initially struggled to wear the opposition’s defence down, despite dominating territorially as the Rebels survived multiple attacks inside the 22 to get through the first quarter unscathed.
That stern defending forced the Highlanders to attempt a long range pick at goal after receiving a penalty and Lima Sopoaga made no mistake off the tee to give the visitors a deserving 3-0 lead. One minute later and centre Rob Thompson dotted down for the opening try. Aaron Smith’s box-kick was fumbled at the back by Rebels fullback Jonah Placid and Thompson toed the ball through to extend their advantage.
Sopoaga added the conversion and then raised the flags again with a second penalty as the Highlanders went 13-0 clear at the turn, although the Rebels butchered a golden opportunity to get on the board on the stroke of half-time when Placid’s final pass rolled into touch instead of finding Don Shipperley.
Jack Debreczeni knocked over a in the seven minutes into the second half, but they would be their first and last points, in spite of testing the Highlanders defence for the better part of the second stanza.
Journeyman Jack Wilson, on debut for the Highlanders, had a strong game and in the 55th minute he was rewarded with a try after the Rebels’ again failed to negotiate a kick-through by Smith.
Thr Rebels continued to fight but the Highlanders delivered a sucker-punch when winger Patrick Osborne intercepted the ball inside the 22 to score a breakaway bonus-point try, which took the wind out of the Rebels’ sails.
REBELS – 03
Penalties : Jack Debreczeni (46)
HIGHLANDERS – 27
Tries : Rob Thompson (21), Jack Wilson (55), Patrick Osborne (63)
Penalties : Lima Sopoaga (20,32)
Cons : Lima Sopoaga (23,56,65)
Rebels: 15 Jonah Placid, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Ben Meehan, 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Sean McMahon (c), 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Lopeti Timpani, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Scott Fuglistaller, 21 Nic Stirzaker, 22 Dan Hawkins, 23 Reece Hodge
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Jack Wilson, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (cc), 6 Luke Whitelock, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Brendon Edmonds
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Dan Pryor, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery
Date: Saturday, March 26
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Referee: Andrew Lees
Assistant Referees: Angus Gardner, Jordan Way
TMO: Peter Marshall