Australia utility-back Hodge scored a hat-trick and racked up 29 points, but the Highlanders outscored the Melbourne franchise by six tries to four to edge home in Dunedin.
The Highlanders could face the Lions, the Jaguares or the Waratahs at the quarter-final stage after putting back-to-back defeats behind them with a win in their final match of the regular season.
Waisake Naholo produced a magnificent last-ditch tackle to deny Jack Maddocks right at the end, having earlier ran 80 metres for a superb solo try before scores from Kayne Hammington and Teihorangi Walden put the Highlanders 21-13 up at the break.
Hodge claimed a first-half double and charged down Josh Ioane’s kick to complete his treble and put the Rebels 31-22 up, but Tevita Li, Greg Pleasants-Tate and Thomas Franklin crossed and Lima Sopoaga took his tally with the boot to 13 points as the Highlanders edged it.
FULL TIME | Heartbreak in Dunedin with an exciting finish. Hodge finishes with 29 of our points.
— Melbourne Rebels (@MelbourneRebels) July 14, 2018
George Bridge also helped himself to a hat-trick as defending champions Crusaders extended their winning run to 12 matches with a 54-17 rout of the sorry Blues.
Bridge scored three of eight tries for Scott Robertson’s rampant side, who wrapped up top spot last week, and Jack Goodhue crossed twice in a one-sided clash at AAMI Stadium.
The Waratahs will go into their quarter-final on the back of a 40-31 defeat to the Brumbies, who scored four of their six tries in an impressive first-half display.
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