Melbourne have edged the Highlanders 31-30 in their final round clash but the Kiwi team grabbed a bonus point to leapfrog the Western Force into the Super Rugby Pacific finals.
The Force did all they could to clinch the eighth spot in the play-offs with a upset win over the finals-bound Hurricanes on Saturday night in Perth.
But they were relying on the Rebels to beat the Highlanders in their Sunday afternoon clash at AAMI Park while stopping the visitors collecting a losing bonus point for finishing within seven points.
Watching on as a team from Perth, the Force rode every moment but ultimately had nothing to celebrate, with the Highlanders moving through to take on the Blues in the quarter-finals.
Former Melbourne Storm flyer Young Tonumaipea secured the one-point lead when he scored in the 75th minute, pouncing on a Joe Powell grubberkick into the in-goal area.
The Rebels hunted another try, which would have seen the Force go through but couldn't deliver and after earning a fulltime penalty opted to kick the ball dead rather than risk losing the match.
Melbourne trailed 18-14 at halftime but hit the front through an impressive individual effort by young fullback Nick Jooste, who replaced injured Wallaby Reece Hodge (cork).
That went out to 26-18 when winger Lukas Ripley juggled a Matt Toomua pass over the line.
But they saw that lead evaporate in the 66th minute when the Highlanders scored their fourth try to go ahead 30-26.
Folau Fakatava continued his super sub role, turning the game on his head after replacing starting halfback Aaron Smith in the 59th minute.
He scored a try two minutes after his arrival after a break by No.8 Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, and then made a break to set up one for winger Fetuli Paea which put the Highlanders ahead.
But the Rebels stormed back to ensure they at least finished their rollercoaster season on a high.