In one of the games of the season, the Waratahs produced a comeback for the ages to overcome the Highlanders 30-23 in Sydney and book a place in the Super Rugby semifinals.
Trailing 23-6 at halftime and with their season on the brink, the Waratahs took advantage of a Waisake Naholo yellow card in the second half to score three spectacular tries within seven minutes and take the unlikeliest of leads.
Then holding that seven point advantage with seven minutes left, the game took another turn as Waratahs prop Paddy Ryan was sent to the sinbin for a professional foul.
Forced to defend their line with 14 men, the brave Waratahs managed to stifle the Highlanders’ attack and hold on for an incredible win.
The Waratahs will now travel to Johannesburg for a semifinal after the Lions beat the Jaguares 40-23 in the fourth quarterfinal at Ellis Park.
Waratahs captain Bernard Foley was the star of the night with 25 points including two tries.
“I had full belief in this team,” Foley told Fox Sports.
“They’ve always shown fight.
“We’re never out of a game and I thought how the guys responded after halftime, we just showed belief that what we’ve done all year was going to get us out of it.
“It’s a helluva story.”
The defeat was a disappointing end to Lima Sopoaga’s Highlanders career.
The five-eighth will now take up a contract with Wasps in London.
“The Waratahs got on a bit of a roll and we battled to get the momentum back,” Highlanders co-captain Ben Smith said.
“We had our chances at the end there.
“Well done to the Waratahs and I wish them all the best in this competition going forward.
“But gutted with how we came out in that second half.
“I was hoping that we could have gone a bit further in this competition and sent (Sopoaga) out in the right way.
“He’s been great for us, great for our club.
“Just gutted that we couldn’t do it for him and a few others that are leaving.”
Yet nothing went right for the Waratahs in the first half.
Foley’s opening kickoff failed to go 10 metres and the Highlanders scrum showed their superiority from the get go.
Despite the poor start, it was the Waratahs who got on the scoreboard first as Foley landed a penalty in the fourth
Their early lead, however, was wiped out soon after as No 8 Michael Wells was pinged for not rolling away and Sopoaga banged over a penalty to level it up
Wells soon redeemed himself by winning a penalty over the ball and Foley’s boot saw the home side regain the lead.
But the first half was one way traffic from then on, as the Highlanders attacked the Waratahs’ left edge regularly and got plenty of reward.
Naholo scored the first try, sprinting down the touchline after a Sopoaga linebreak.
The Waratahs had their best first half chance when hooker Damien Fitzpatrick split the defence before unleashing flanker Ned Hanigan who was tackled metres short of the line.
But the Waratahs lacked the patience to turn that opportunity into points and shortly after they were punished.
Highlanders centre Rob Thompson ran an excellent line, cutting back against the Waratahs’ sliding defence, and went through untouched under the posts.
A dominant scrum allowed the Highlanders to kick further clear, as Sopoaga banged over another penalty to hand the visitors a 23-6 lead after 34 minutes.
Despite some stern halftime words, it took until the 52nd minute for the Waratahs to wake from their siesta, as big winger Taqele Naiyaravoro intercepted a pass on his own line and raced to halfway.
It was a huge play and proved to be a turning point as Naholo was then binned for his reckless tackle attempts on a rampaging Sekope Kepu.
The Waratahs then stunned the 14 man Highlanders with a triple strike, as centre Kurtley Beale provided two try assists.
His first was to Foley, as he ran straight and offloaded to his longtime playmaking partner in crime to score under the sticks.
The Waratahs then attacked from transition and spread to Beale on the fringes, with the Wallabies ace cutting through like a knife through butter and putting fullback Israel Folau away to score.
NSW had their home fans on their feet by the 60th minute as they again carved the Highlanders up through the middle and finished with Foley scoring a converted try.
Remarkably now holding a 27-23 lead, a ‘New South Wales’ chant reverberated around the old SFS and the small crowd’s passionate support was rewarded as impressive flanker Will Miller won his side a crucial breakdown penalty.
A Foley penalty stretched the lead to 30-23 and with Ryan in the bin they somehow clung on as winger Alex Newsome packed down at scrums in the desperate and frantic final minutes.