Sportal.co.nz 29.Mar.2013Getty Images
The Reds scored four tries to three and deserved to hold on for a win in front of a crowd of 12,000 in a cliff-hanger at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
It was the Reds fifth win from seven games while the hapless Highlanders had only a bonus point as consolation after their fifth consecutive loss.
The Highlanders had lost 7-19 to the Chiefs in Hamilton last week while the Reds had beaten the Bulls 23-18 in Brisbane.
The Highlanders had won nine of their 16 games against the Reds in Super rugby, and the Reds had not won in Dunedin. Queensland last won in Dunedin against Otago in 1981.
The Reds made the best possible start, hooker James Hanson stretching out to score after five minutes following a break by Quade Cooper, who converted to make it 7-0.
Colin Slade kicked a straightforward penalty four minutes later but a concern for the Highlanders was the easy metres being made by the Reds, not least midfielder Ben Tuapai.
Slade kicked his second penalty and then the Highlanders extended their lead to 13-7 with a try by the posts by No Elliot Dixon after 19 minutes.
Buxton Popoali'i beat two defenders in a mazy run and, from the ensuing penalty, Aaron Smith took a quick tap and Dixon barged over.
But the Reds regained the lead after 25 minutes when the Reds drove from a five-metre lineout and flanker Liam Gill scored. Cooper converted and it was 14-13.
Highlanders captain Andrew Hore was sin-binned for slowing the ball down after 28 minutes and the Reds capitalised immediately when No 8 Jake Schatz crashed over under the posts. Cooper converted and it was 21-13.
Centre Jason Emery made a fine run for the Highlanders which would have yielded a try but for a desperate tackle by tight-head prop James Slipper but Slade kicked his third penalty on the stroke of halftime to make it 21-16.
The Reds deserved their lead. They had displayed more imagination and penetration and the Highlanders defence leaked three tries.
The second spell started with the Reds backs and forwards battering inside Highlanders' territory and Cooper kicked a penalty to extend the lead to 24-16.
Coach Jamie Joseph introduced TJ Ioane and Ma'afu Fia in an effort to add some punch to the Highlanders forwards who had been strangely out of sorts for much of the match.
Ma'a Nonu produced a piledriving tackle on Cooper which lifted the muted crowd which was silenced after 14minutes when halfback Will Genia scooted through to score unopposed from a 5m scrum.
Cooper converted and the Reds had a handsome 31-16 lead.
The Highlanders finally put together after 20 minutes when Ben Smith made the initial incision, Popoali'i beat two tackles off-loaded to Hosea Gear who scored in the corner.
Lima Sopoaga converted splendidly and the Highlanders had renewed hope at 31-23.
The game really heated up 13 minutes from the end when Ma'a Nonu crashed over under the posts from a scrum move. Sopoaga converted and it was all on at 31-30.
But the Reds gained a little breathing space 10 minutes from the end when Cooper kicked a penalty from almost 40m to extend the lead to 34-30.
But it became a one-point game again seven minutes from the end when Sopoaga kicked a 47m penalty as the crowd became increasingly animated.
Tries: Dixon, Gear, Nonu
Cons: Slade, Sopoaga 2
Pens: Slade 3, Sopoaga
Tries: Hanson, Gill Schatz, Genia
Cons: Cooper 4
Pens: Cooper 2
HT: Reds 21-16