Super Rugby Pacific: Highlanders stumble to fourth straight defeat against Melbourne Rebels

The Highlanders' season of discontent has continued with a fourth straight Super Rugby Pacific defeat, 47-31 against Melbourne Rebels, as their playoff prospects take another body blow.

The home side are battling to stay alive past this campaign, but showed they have the talent to compete at this level, with young winger Darby Lancaster grabbing a hattrick of tries and Wallabies first-five Carter Gordon a double, as they leapfrogged the Chiefs into the top four.

Undone by Lancaster's first-half double and a penalty try that cost them fullback Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens for 10 minutes, the visitors trailled by 16 points at halftime and closed within nine with 10 minutes remaining, but that was as close as they got.

The Rebels wasted no time seizing momentum, with halfback Ryan Louwrens scoring inside the first three minutes and the Highlanders losing winger Jonah Lowe to injury.

Folau Fakatava scores a try against Melbourne Rebels.
Folau Fakatava scores a try against Melbourne Rebels. Photo credit: Getty Images

When the home side won a lineout inside the Highlanders half, the halfback again dashed to the 22, but his pass bounced off the shoulder of second-five David Feliuai and the move ended.

The Highlanders' first chance came when prop Daniel Lienert-Brown broke the defence and threw an audacious long pass towards Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, who could not gather. Melbourne could not clear the threat and when the visitors regained the ball, flanker Sean Withy plunged over between the posts.  

Lancaster put the Rebels ahead again with a clever kick-and-chase effort down the left touchline and Highlanders second-five Sam Gilbert left a penalty attempt short of its target.

Flanker Josh Kemeny put Melbourne back on attack, but when the ball shifted right, Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens was guilty of deliberately knocking on the final pass, gifting them an automatic seven points and copping a yellow card for his efforts.

With his fullback's return imminent, Highlanders skipper Billy Harmon committed exactly the same offence in midfield, but somehow suffered just a penalty, and his team managed to clear the threat.

They survived the absence of Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens without conceding any more points, but after the halftime siren, Lancster had his second try, when he shrugged off the attentions of three defenders to score.  

The Highlanders found themselves 26-10 down at the break and needed to score next, if they were to force their way back into the contest. They had several opportunities, and finally cracked the defence from an attacking lineout that saw No.8 Nikora Broughton break left and feed halfback Folau Fakatava to score.

Next possession, the Rebels kept the ball in hand for 16 phases, before resorting to a grubber kick that evaded the outstretched dive of Maciu Nabolakasi. 

They retrieved the dropout and when fullback Andrew Kellaway dashed towards the tryline, taken in Fakatava's high tackle, Gordon was there for the offload and a try that probably saved the Highlanders another yellow card. 

The visitors re-entered the Melbourne 22 and poured on the pressure, with hooker Ricky Jackson mauled over from an attacking lineout, but they made a horrible hash of securing the kickoff, allowing their hosts an immediate chance to answer.

From a five-metre scrum, the Highlanders conceded a penalty in the shadow of their posts and Louwrens took the quick tap to put Gordon over for his second.

With eight minutes remaining, they needed three scores to steal victory. Gilbert put a clever kick towards winger Timoci Tavatavanawai's corner, but he could not gather the high bounce.

Moments later, the Highlanders lost an attacking lineout throw, but their opponents failed to secure the ball on their side of the maul and prop Ethan de Groot pounced to score. 

When Wallabies prop Taniela Tupou knocked on inside Highlanders territory, they had another opportunity, but Harmon's speculator pass in midfield was bobbled by Gilbert and picked off by Lancaster, who raced away for his hattrick.

That one play probably sums up the Highlanders season so far and they now stay across the Tasman to face Queensland Reds on Friday.

"We're scoring enough points, but we need to stop a couple more and we'll be right," observed Harmon. "That'll  just come through accuracy - we gave away a lot of penalties, a yellow card early on and we were just letting back into the game through our errors.

"We need to tidy up that and than we'll be going right."

Melbourne enjoy a bye week to relish their lofty position on the table.

Melbourne Rebels 47 (Lancaster 3, Gordon 2, Louwrens tries; penalty try; Gordon 5 conversions) Highlanders 31 (Withy, Fakatava, Jackson, de Groot tries; Gilbert 4 conversions & penalty)