Plucky Melbourne have spoiled the Crusaders' Super Rugby Trans-Tasman party despite going down 52-26 in their final round clash at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday afternoon.
Playing for a spot in the two-team final, the New Zealand champions needed to beat undermanned Melbourne by at least 33 points and pick up a bonus point to overtake the Highlanders on points differential.
The Crusaders' Test winger Sevu Reece scored a hat-trick to help snare the bonus point but the margin wasn't enough to see his team cement a finals berth.
The Blues later beat the Western Force to leap-frog into first and will host the Highlanders in Auckland next Saturday.
Winger Leicester Fainga'anuku almost got the job done with a try in the 74th minute but it was ruled a double movement.
The shell-shocked Crusaders looked like they'd suffered their first loss of the competition with Reece saying the players were devastated.
"We will take the win but at the same time a lot of heads are down; there's some not so happy boys out there," Reece told Stan Sport.
The Kiwis got off to the best possible start, running in two tries in the opening five minutes through halfback Mitchell Drummond and then fullback Will Jordan.
But the Rebels climbed off the canvas with lock Trevor Hosea crashing over the line in the 14th minute.
Another two Crusaders tries between the 19th and 21st minutes again put a big dent in Melbourne's hopes of an upset but they refused to go away.
With the Crusaders losing Jordan to a yellow card for a deliberate knockdown, Rebels halfback Joe Powell backed himself and dashed through the defence to dot down for a 26-12 scoreline.
It looked like the Crusaders would add another try right on halftime but centre Braydon Ennor bizarrely spilt the ball with the wide line open.
Rebels winger Andrew Kellaway then served up another blow early in the second half when he tackled a flying Jordan into touch as the Test ace dived across the tryline.
Both teams continued to play with an attacking mindset, with Reece adding two more tries while young centre Glen Vaihu was among the scorers for the Rebels in his first start.
It was a frantic finish with the Crusaders needing a converted try with seven minutes remaining, but the Rebels showed fighting spirit to hold them out.
With Matt Toomua injured, Rebels stand-in skipper Michael Wells said he was happy with the effort but not the result.
"It's a weird one - you're happy everyone keeps rocking up each week but the fact is we are zero and five in this tournament and we need to be better," Wells said.
"It's a good group and we've got the makings of something but we've got to show it."
Australian Associated Press