Highlanders captain Aaron Smith was one of the most excited figures inside Forsyth Barr Stadium, when his understudy Folau Fakatava darted down the Red's blindside to score a try that both stole the match and kept their Super Rugby Pacific season alive.

The 35-30 win ensures the southerners remain in the eighth and final playoffs spot, with the Rebels' demolition of the Force a couple of hours after the final whistle helping their cause even further.

They'll now travel to Auckland on Friday for the final round of the regular season, where a win over the Blues would guarantee a quarter-final berth.

With the Force facing the dauting task of playing the first-placed Chiefs and the Rebels having to travel to Canberra to play the Brumbies, they'll be highly favoured - win or lose - to clinch a spot in the post-season.

Making Fakatava's dot even more more significant was its contribution to Smith's final game in Dunedin, ensuring a fairytale send-off in an emotionally charged evening for the Japan-bound, 114-test All Black star.

It was the second time in as many weeks the Highlanders have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, after a Sam Gilbert penalty with time expired against the Rebels last weekend kept their season on life support.

Watching on from the sidelines after being replaced in the 66th minute by Fakatava in his 183rd game for his beloved franchise, Smith had warned his teammates the moment was brewing.

"I said to the boys with about 10 to go that if they get caught napping, Folau will see it," Smith said after the game.

"One on one on the blind, don't give that to Folau Fakatava - it's over. He shut the door and Freddie [Bruns] kicked the goal.

"We get to go up and give the Blues everything we got."

It was a poetic moment - Smith's long-time protege Fakatava, who he'd helped develop from a raw but talented youngster from Tonga via Hawke's Bay to become an All Black, being passed the torch after four-plus seasons backing him up off the Highlanders pine to add the finish the final chapter in Smith's long journey in Dunedin.

Plays like those were an example of why Smith said he'd tried to convince Fakatava to stay with the franchise, despite other offers, which almost certainly would have provided a pathway straight to the No. 9 jersey.

"Whenever he was talking about leaving I said 'you can take this team where you want to take it' and he will. 

"Next year and however long he wants to stay, he will leave his own legacy in this jersey and in this team. 

"And he made a [statement] tonight. That is a big statement, clutch moment. And that's what big gun players do, and he's one of those."

Friday's win was the culmination of what Smith described as a "huge" week, as his farewell tour took him across the region, involving surprise mall send-offs and countless interviews across all platforms and mediums.

When gameday finally came, Smith admitted he'd had to take some time away from his family, who gathered at his house to start the celebrations early Friday afternoon, to try and centre himself, block out the external noise, and switch into performance mode.

"I was trying my hardest tonight the last two days, I've just really tried to just zone in," he said. "Even though it was hard and family are turning up… from about 2pm everyone was at our house sort of partying up and having a good time. 

"I had to go to the room and lock in because I just wanted to perform and get the result we got tonight. And that was the best part, it wasn't pretty, but there's back to back wins against two good sides and it might get us in a playoff and that's all I really wanted from the week. 

"I didn't want all the hoopla and that but it comes with it and I was actually really grateful for it. I play in a team sport because I love being a part of a team and I always try to put the team first. But I definitely felt the love and there's low-key relief.

"I just try to have a real mental plan, stay focused on what's in front of me - the next step, next step and then just trying to not get too emotional. I'm sure when the season is done and then I can look back. 

"But I didn't want to let the feelings ruin the night for me, and I had a couple."

Undoubtedly some of those - alongside a rousing haka from his teammates - would have been inspired by memories of his father and biggest supporter Wayne, who died last month.

"He would've said 'that was bloody tough on the heart son'," said Smith, musing on how his dad would've assessed Friday's nail-biter.

"He would've been extremely proud. It's hard not to think about it. It's still weird him not being here but he's here in spirit.

"I miss him so much. Not much leaves me wordless, but that does."

2023-05-26T22:02:07Z dg43tfdfdgfd