Hard-nosed Reds coach Ewen McKenzie could only shake his head and smile weakly after watching Queensland give up a 21-point lead and then get out of jail in a final-round Super 14 match to remember at Suncorp Stadium.
Fittingly, battle-scarred Queensland finished their season of excitement on a high with a 38-36 victory over the Highlanders, but a second-half capitulation ensured they did it the hard way.
Up 24-3 and in command at halftime, the Reds twice trailed in the last 15 minutes before replacement backrower Tasi Luafutu scored two tries to ensure they finished with an 8-5 record and fifth place on the table.
But their best result since 2002 was only achieved after stand-out Highlanders fullback Israel Dagg missed a last-gasp 55m penalty attempt after the fulltime hooter had sounded.
While Reds five-eighth Quade Cooper put on a first-half show of circus tricks to score one try and set up three others, it was his angled conversion of Luafutu’s 78th-minute try which gave his side their two-point advantage.
“We’re in the entertainment business,” McKenzie dryly deadpanned after the 11-try spectacle which had 26,700 Brisbane fans on the edge of their seats.
“It certainly wasn’t the halftime talk and letting them go back out there and score four tries (in 23 minutes).
“We played them back into the game through our errors – we made it easy for them.
“But give (the Highlanders) some credit, they went out there and attacked very well.”
Just like their costly penultimate-round loss to the Hurricanes, the leg-weary Reds gave up a huge first-half lead with a man in the sin-bin and injuries taking their toll.
Missing nine first-choice players, Queensland’s thin stocks were drained further with flanker Scott Higginbotham (ankle) and fullback Ben Lucas (knee) succumbing to first-half injuries.
Needing a 100-point win to be any chance of making the semi-finals, the Reds had showed their intent from kickoff with Cooper, Peter Hynes and Will Chambers combining to put Digby Ioane over after just 38 seconds.
Cooper’s show also included a cut-out pass for lock Radike Samo to score and an audacious, unnecessary flick pass for Hynes to cross for a 17-3 lead in the 19th minute.
When the Reds were down 29-24 late in the game, it was the mercurial 11-Test Wallabies back who also popped up beside Hynes to put Luafutu over.
Highlanders hooker Jason Rutledge stole the lead back but Luafutu’s second try from a driving maul with a minute left levelled the scores at 36-all.
Retiring Reds veteran Sean Hardman produced a strong 80-minute display in his 148th and last match and was a part of the maul that set up the win.
Skipper Will Genia, playing on one leg, defied a medial ligament tear to save the Reds several times in defence and also expertly steer them around the park.
The home side’s first-half momentum disappeared with the sin-binning of veteran lock Van Humphries after he sparked an all-in brawl before half-time by reacting to a facial from Highlanders halfback Jimmy Cowan.
The signs didn’t look good after the restart with Dagg swivelling out of a lazy Ioane tackle and chipping over the top of Cooper to score inside 60 seconds.