Highlanders hold off resurgent Waratahs in Super Rugby nail biter

The Highlanders opened their four-match sequence against Australian opposition by surviving a resurgent Waratahs in Sydney on Friday night to claim a tense 30-26 win over the the team they replaced as Super Rugby champions.

Despite fielding a supposedly depowered back three and the absence of two key forwards, the Highlanders notched their fifth win in seven matches over the New South Welshmen, though not before the concession of three tries in eight minutes set up a frantic climax at Allianz Stadium.

Seemingly in control heading into the final quarter, the Highlanders had to withstand a comeback that barely seemed feasible when Lima Sopoaga slotted a 54th minute dropped goal to push the advantage to 30 points.

A frustrated home crowd finally had a moment to savour in the 56th minute when Wycliff Palu's halftime replacement Jed Holloway broke the Highlanders defence after the Waratahs belatedly strung phases together.

Holloway, a more mobile alternative to Palu at No.8, continued the Waratahs resurgence when he outran the defence after a line ball from Beale put him in the clear after a promising break from Hooper.

Reserve prop Tom Robertson then benefited from dubious officiating from New Zealand referee Nick Briant  after he barrelled over from close range despite picking the ball up from an offside position after Liam Squire was dispossessed.

Holloway then notched his hat-trick after a driving maul collapsed over the line, but the Highlanders regained their composure - and secured vital possession - to bank a win where surrendering the try-scoring bonus point annoyed co-captain Ben Smith.

"The Waratahs played well in that second half and put a lot of pressure on us. Defensively we didn't stay in it, we let them back in the game. I'm just disappointed with the way we played that second half.

"We just didn't work hard enough for each other but at least we got the win."

Wearing black armbands as a mark of respect for their former Fijian back Seru Rabeni who passed away this week, the Highlanders initially produced the ideal tribute by surging to a 22-0 lead at halftime by capitalising on an error-prone opponent.

The Waratahs had 34 missed tackles against the Brumbies and were exposed again in the 10th minute when Rob Thompson evaded hooker Tolu Latu and offloaded for Patrick Osborne's replacement Ryan Tongia, who crossed unimpeded at a handy enough angle for Sopoaga to convert.

A Sopoaga penalty after the Highlanders second lineout steal pushed the advantage into double figures and the Waratahs were fortunate not to concede another three points after their first scrum feed drew a penalty after pack disintegrated.

The Highlanders, who scored 20 unanswered points to close out last June's semifinal, added a second try in the 28th minute after Wallabies veteran Palu shelled a pressure-free pass - Liam Coltman pounced on the loose ball and freed No.8 Squire who powered 35m after Kurtley Beale and another would-be tackler David Horwitz collided.

Michael Hooper was his combative best at the breakdown but a handling error by the Wallabies openside initiated the Highlanders third try after Ben Smith kicked ahead on halfway and blindside Elliot Dixon beat the All Black fullback and Matt Faddes to the touchdown.

It was the first time the Waratahs had been held scoreless in the first half in Sydney since 2009 and the onslaught continued in the second spell when Dixon out jumped Zac Guildford to haul in a Sopoaga cross kick and stroll over.

At that point a rout looked likely but the Waratahs eased some pressure on head coach Daryl Gibson by fighting back to claim a bonus point.

Waratahs captain Hooper was pleased to finish strongly but he obviously lamented a disastrous opening 50-odd minutes.

"We showed what we can do but it's not how we want to start games.

"We didn't read the game well enough, our direction was way off. In the second half we started to get that flow, the calls were good and the forwards were carrying hard and that got us into the game.

"We couldn't go any further behind so we just started playing. We've got to change our mentality at the start of the game and we'll be a very dangerous outfit."

The Highlanders remain at their beachfront base at Coogee until Friday when they head south for Saturday's Easter weekend clash with the Rebels in Melbourne. They then host the Force before returning across the Tasman to play the Reds in Brisbane.

The Waratahs, meanwhile, attempt to complete the double over the Reds at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday after winning their round one clash by 20 points.

Highlanders 30 (Elliot Dixon 2, Ryan Tongia, Liam Squire tries; Lima Sopoaga pen dg 2 con) NSW Waratahs 26(Jed Holloway 3, Tom Robertson tries; Kurtley Beale 2 con) HT: 22-0 at Allianz Stadium, Sydney