O'Connor produces the perfect parting gift
The Rebels came from 24 points down to complete their most successful Super Rugby season with a 38-37 win over the Highlanders in Melbourne on Friday.
It is now officially the Rebels' best season ever - the first time they got five wins - a great parting gift by all the departing members of the franchise.
Six players - Cooper Vuna, Nick Phipps, Gareth Delve, Ged Robinson, Nic Henderson and James O'Connor - along with coach Damien Hill are all leaving Melbourne.
And they could not have scripted their departure any better - the Rebels coming back from trailing 7-31 at half-time and outscoring the visitors by 31-6 after the break.
The Rebels let themselves down in the first half with some poor set-piece play, especially in the scrums, and shocking defending.
It was only once James O'Connor came off the bench in the second half that there was some structure to the Rebels' attack.
The other replacements who made an impact for the Rebels was Luke Jones - who managed to give them the grunt they lacked up front - and Jordy Reid, with his high energy levels.
As for the Highlanders, despite their dominance in the first half, they also produced a host of errors and dropped their intensity.
That was blatantly obvious in the second half, as the Rebels charged back into the game and those ageing Highlanders legs - Brad Thorn, Andrew Hore and Tony Woodcock - became less effective.
Ben Smith, who was involved in the move a couple of times, scored the opening try as the Highlanders worked the ball through the phases. Colin Slade added the conversion for a 7-0 lead in as many minutes.
The Rebels' riposte was swift and decisive - Nick Phibbs first sniped on the blindside and then quick hands, with some sublime passing from Jason Woodward and Bryce Hegarty, put Jason Woodward, centre Tom English over. Woodward added the extras - 7-all after 10 minutes.
Hosea Gear was next to score, as the Highlanders worked a great backline move from a line-out deep inside Rebels territory - with Gear featuring three times in the move and coming off his left wing to score on the right. Slade's conversion made it 14-7 at the end of the first quarter.
It was a Slade three-pointer, after a scrum penalty, that extended the Highlanders' ;lead to 10 points - 17-7, just on the half-hour mark.
The Rebels' leaky defence cost them again, as Tamati Ellison went over. Slade made it 24-7. And a stolen line-out allowed Tony Woodcock to go over for the bonus-point try right on the half-time hooter - Slade making it 31-7 at the break.
It was the perfect start to the second half for the Rebels, as a poor execution of a pass and a kick saw the ball bounce favourably for Cooper Vuna - who brushed off a couple of defenders to go over. Woodward added the conversion - 14-31.
And the comeback continued with Vuna's second try as the game moved into the final quarter - from a scrum a sublime inside pass by James O'Connor put the wing into space on the inside. Woodward's conversion made it 21-34.
O'Connor put English over for his second try with just over 13 minutes left on the clock, after the Highlanders were penalised close to their line and the Rebels went with the tap-'n-go. Woodward made it 28-34.
And O'Connor was again the creator of the fifth try - a well-timed pass to flyhalf Bryce Hegarty, who went over in the corner. Woodward hooked his conversion past the left upright - 33-34 with five minutes to go.
With three minutes left on the clock Hayden Parker made it 37-33, after the Rebels rushed up too early after a clearance attempt by O'Connor.
And with time up on the clock Hegarty got his second, with O'Connor again prominent. Gareth Delve took the conversion attempt and just went left of the uprights, but it mattered not - the Rebels had completed the comeback, 38-37.
Man of the match: A number of the Highlanders contributed to the team's performance, but none so more than fullback Ben Smith - who was a rock in the last line of defence and apart from a few probing runs, also produced some significant touch-finders that drove the Rebels back into their own territory. Luke Jones and Jordy Reid provided the impetus up front in the second half, with Jones's carries in particular effective. However, our award goes to James O'Connor, who gave the Rebels the perfect parting gift - a show of his true value, with all his sublime attacking skills on display.
For the Rebels:
Tries: English 2, Vuna 2, Hegarty 2
Cons: Woodward 4
For the Highlanders:
Tries: B Smith, Gear, Ellison, Woodcock
Cons: Slade 4
Pens: Slade 2, Parker
Rebels: 15 Angus Roberts, 14 Jason Woodward, 13 Tom English, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 Cooper Vuna, 10 Bryce Hegarty, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Gareth Delve (captain), 7 Scott Fuglistaller, 6 Jarrod Saffy, 5 Cadeyrn Neville, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Shota Horie, 17 Paul Alo-Emile, 18 Luke Jones, 19 Jordy Reid, 20 Nic Stirzaker, 21 James O'Connor, 22 Kimami Sitauti.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Tamati Ellison, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 Elliot Dixon, 6 TJ Ioane, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Brad Thorn (captain), 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Andrew Hore (captain), 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Jake Paringatai, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Fumiaki Tanaka, 21 Hayden Parker, 22 Shaun Treeby.
Referee: Andrew Lees (Australia)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Matt O'Brien (Australia)
TMO: Peter Marshall (Australia)