The Highlanders scored 22 unanswered points in the first half as they recorded a memorable 30-26 win over the Waratahs in Sydney on Friday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
The scoreline hardly reflects the nature of this match. Having absolutely dominated the first 55 minutes, the Highlanders romped to a 30-0 lead, but the Waratahs launched an incredible late surge, and four quick-fire tries suddenly meant it was game on.
However, the Highlanders were ultimately able to keep the hosts at bay for the final six minutes to claim a thrilling victory that had looked all but assured at half-time. Many pre-match pundits would have installed the Waratahs as favourites at home, but despite their late fightback, they simply had too much ground to make up.
After a shock defeat in the opening round, the Highlanders have quickly rediscovered their mojo, and their performance during the first 50 minutes on Friday was virtually without reproach. However, they will be disappointed with the manner in which they faded in the final half hour.
The Highlanders produced an absolute masterclass in the opening half, attacking with intent and precision, while their line speed on defence applied telling pressure on almost every occasion the Waratahs had possession.
By the end of the opening 40 minutes, the Highlanders had scored three superb tries and established a commanding 22-0 lead. It was also the first time since 2009 that the Tahs had been held scoreless in the first half in Sydney.
The tone was set early on when a beautiful break and offload from centre Rob Thompson put winger Ryan Tongia in for a simple try, while just before the half-hour mark, the Landers pounced on a Waratahs error and No 8 Liam Squire went over to score.
Despite the fact the Highlanders came into this clash without a number of influential injured players, their first-half performance was confident, calculated and composed, while the inaccurate Waratahs had very little answer.
Before the break, Highlanders flank Elliot Dixon latched on to a kick to score and extend the lead to 22 points, while the Tahs squandered one last attacking opportunity after opting to kick a penalty to the corner.
To make matters worse, the Waratahs butchered another golden try-scoring opportunity just a couple of minutes after the restart, while the Highlanders then made them pay as Dixon stole a high ball out of the hands of winger Zac Guildford to go over for his second try.
At 30-0 up after a Lima Sopoaga drop goal, there seemed no way back for the Waratahs, but replacement Jed Holloway scored two tries within 10 minutes, while fellow substitute Tom Robertson then burst over to score as the hosts suddenly cut the deficit to 11 points with as many minutes to play.
Holloway incredibly completed his hat-trick to make matters even more interesting heading into the dying stages of the clash, but the Tahs were ultimately unable to complete what would have been the most famous of comebacks.
Waratahs – Tries: Jed Holloway (3), Tom Robertson. Conversions: Kurtley Beale (3).
Highlanders – Tries: Ryan Tongia, Liam Squire, Elliot Dixon (2). Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalty: Sopoaga. Drop goal: Sopoaga.
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Matt Carraro, 13 Rob Horne, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 David Dennis, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Paddy Ryan.
Subs: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Tom Robertson, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Jack Dempsey, 22 Matt Lucas, 23 Reece Robinson.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Ryan Tongia, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (c), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery.
Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images