A Super Rugby Pacific campaign that promised much more for weary Melbourne Rebels fans has wound up in familiar territory, with Kevin Foote's men fumbling their chances to qualify for the playoffs.

Following the last-gasp 20-17 defeat to New Zealand strugglers Otago Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday, the Rebels will need to win both their last regular season matches and hope a raft of other results go their way.

That would mean beating Australian heavyweights ACT Brumbies at their Canberra fortress in the final round.

With only three wins for the year, Rebels fans, all-too-familiar with their team missing the playoffs, may wonder what all the early season hype was about.

The Rebels' commitment to Foote's mantra of being "fast, fearless and resolute" saw them play some attractive rugby, upset Australian rivals and earn plaudits from pundits in the first half of the season.

With only two early wins, and four from the entire 2022 season, Foote and his staff were rewarded in April with contract extensions through to the end of 2025.

The goodwill has since faded with the mounting defeats and the poor discipline that proved the Rebels' undoing against the New South Wales Waratahs and Highlanders in the last two weeks.

Foote lashed out at the referees after the match in Dunedin where Highlanders centre Sam Gilbert slotted a penalty after the siren to claim the win. But the Rebels were culpable, having been a man down for the last 10 minutes due to a yellow card.

"It's going to depend on a couple of results, unfortunately," Foote said of the team's playoffs hopes.

"But I think we’ve played well this year, to be honest. I know we haven’t got the results but I can see the belief in the team and the game model working."

The Rebels are hardly alone in struggling against New Zealand teams but their failure to make the quarter-finals in 12-team Super Rugby Pacific is awkward for Rugby Australia.

Since launching the Rebels in 2011, the governing body has invested heavily to have a foothold for the sport in Melbourne, a city dominated by Australian Rules football.

They have had little return on investment.

The Rebels' sole appearance in a postseason knockout match came when they made the semi-finals of Super Rugby AU, a one-off mini-competition put on for Australia's five teams in 2020 when COVID-19 restrictions prevented overseas travel.

With few results to point to, Foote could only push the team's "strong" culture to fans battling to keep the faith.

"I suppose (it's about) just being patient with this group," said the South African.

"If we keep building from here, I do believe there's some good things to come from us."

(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)