The Highlanders have resisted a late fightback to heap more pain on the NSW Waratahs in a Super Rugby thriller between the 2014 and 2015 champions.
After ending NSW’s title defence with a 35-17 triumph in last year’s semi-finals, the Highlanders returned to Allianz Stadium to deny the Waratahs 30-26 in a frenetic attacking encounter on on Friday night.
The Highlanders led 30-0 midway through the second half before four tries in 15 minutes for the Waratahs – a hat-trick to replacement No.8 Jed Holloway and one to reserve prop Tom Robertson – set up a grandstand finish.
In reality, though, the Waratahs left their run much too late, with the Highlanders always having their measure.
The defeat followed a 32-15 derby loss to the Brumbies and leaves the Waratahs in serious danger of losing touch with Australia’s unbeaten conference leaders.
The result aside, more of a concern for Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson was how the Highlanders outplayed his side in virtually every facet, starting at the scrum and ending with their clinical finishing, to seemingly have the match wrapped up by halftime.
By the time they led 30-0 early in the second half, the Highlanders had racked up 50 unanswered points against the Tahs since trailing 17-15 in their 2015 grand final qualifier in Sydney.
After being unable to convert the early pressure into points, the Waratahs were made to pay.
From a lineout win, Highlanders centre Rob Thompson sliced straight through, standing up NSW hooker Tolu Latu, before flicking a short ball to winger Ryan Tongia, who touched down next to the posts.
Lima Sopoaga’s conversion and then a 18th-minute penalty goal shot the Highlanders to a 10-0 lead.
A sloppy knock-on from Waratahs No.8 Wycliff Palu gifted the Highlanders their second try – to long-striding loose forward Liam Squire – and suddenly it was 17-0 after 28 minutes.
Flanker Elliot Dixon extended the visitors’ lead to 22-0 with the Highlanders’ third five-pointer just before the break and it appeared lights out for the Waratahs when he scored again from a Ben Smith crossfield kick shortly after the interval.
But after a Sopoaga drop goal gave the Highlanders their 30-0 buffer at the 55-minute mark, the titleholders went to sleep.
Alas, the Waratahs’ late flurry was not enough.
“It’s back to the drawing board,” rued Waratahs captain Michael Hooper, whose team next faces the Queensland Reds in Brisbane in a must-win affair on Sunday week.