Super Rugby Pacific: Folau Fakatava's last-second winner keeps Highlanders' season alive in Aaron Smith's Dunedin farewell

The Highlanders have kept their Super Rugby Pacific season alive, and given Aaron Smith a dream Dunedin farewell with a dramatic 35-30 victory over the Reds at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Down 28-30 in the final seconds, replacement halfback Folau Fakatava stole the show for the southerners, giving an eye to the franchise's future on a night that said goodbye to one of their greats.

The victory moves the Highlanders up to eighth on the Super Rugby table, leapfrogging Western Force into the final playoff spot.

Aaron Smith.
Aaron Smith. Photo credit: Photosport

Their hopes will now rest on results going their way over the coming days, and a showdown against the Blues at Eden Park in the final round-robin match.

The walking wounded Reds meanwhile - who lost co-captains Liam Wright and Tate McDermott, as well as senior lock Connor Vest to injury over the course of 80 minutes - sit seventh, courtesy of points differential. 

Going against the script for Smith's home swansong, the Reds opened the scoring inside the opening 10 minutes.

From an attacking lineout, James O'Connor slipped an inside pass to Liam Wright - who dived over and injured himself in the process, ending his night with the score at 7-0 in his side's favour.

Minutes later, Wright's replacement Jake Upfield doubled the scoring, as No.8 Harry Wilson ran from inside his own 22, before O'Connor showed incredible footwork to stay in touch on the left wing, as the Reds went through the hands for the replacement loose forward to nab his side's second try with his first touch.

But down 14-0, the Highlanders played themselves into the contest.

The Reds celebrate against the Highlanders.
The Reds celebrate against the Highlanders. Photo credit: Getty Images

Midway through the first half, Smith and Freddie Burns combined to put Jona Nareki over, before No.8 Hugh Renton had the Highlanders' second from the back of a scrum, picking and going over from close range as Sam Gilbert's boot locked the scores up.

However, the Reds scored with the final play of the first half, as a clever lineout move put winger Suliasi Vunivalu over, and gave the visitors a 21-14 advantage at the break.

The Reds added to their advantage after the break through Lynagh's boot, kicking two penalties at the start of the second half to leave the Highlanders with all to do.

Down 27-14 now, the Highlanders kept themselves in the contest when replacement prop Saula Ma'u scored his first career Super Rugby try, fittingly sent over by Smith, before the southerners took the lead for the first time on the night. 

Coming on as a substitute, Connor Garden-Bachop scored with his first touch of the game, as Burns found the winger unmarked, only for a scrum penalty to allow Lynagh to restore the Reds' lead to 30-28 with minutes left to play.

But in a passing of the torch moment, Fakatava - Smith's halfback deputy - scored with the final play of the game, picking and going with a try in the right corner, to keep the Highlanders' hunt for the playoffs alive.

The Highlanders will now need a favour from Melbourne Rebels, who host Western Force later on Friday. 

A Force victory or bonus point loss will see them overtake the Highlanders into eighth spot on the ladder, and leave everything to play for in the final week.

Highlanders 35 (Nareki, Renton, Ma'u, Garden-Bachop, Fakatava tries; Gilbert 4, Burns 1 conversion)

Reds 30 (Wright, Upfield, Vunivalu tries; Lynagh 3 conversions, Lynagh 3 penalties)

Sign up to receive news updates

By entering your email address, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. Newshub and its affiliates may use your email address to provide updates/news, ads, and offers. To withdraw your consent or learn more about your rights, see the Privacy Policy.