The Waratahs fought back from 23-6 down to beat the Highlanders 30-23 in Saturday’s Super Rugby quarter-final in Sydney. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
The Waratahs will play either the Lions away or the Jaguares at home in next weekend’s semi-finals, with the Crusaders – who thrashed the Sharks 40-10 – hosting the Hurricanes.
In May, the Highlanders lost 41-12 in Sydney after wing Tevita Nabura received a red card in the 19th minute. This time, it was a 51st-minute yellow card to wing Waisake Naholo that proved costly for the visitors, with the Waratahs scoring three converted tries in six minutes to take a 27-23 lead.
In contrast, the Waratahs didn’t concede at all during the last 10 minutes of the match when they were down to 14 men, with the Highlanders’ handling letting them down at crucial times.
Waratahs flyhalf Bernard Foley finished with a 25-point haul – via two tries, three conversions and three penalties – that saw him named Man of the Match.
It was two Foley penalties that gave the Waratahs an early 6-3 lead, but the Highlanders took charge of the match when Lima Sopoaga burst through a gap – created by Curtis Rona shooting out of the defensive line – and put Naholo over in the right-hand corner. The flyhalf nailed the touchline conversion and added a penalty goal.
The Waratahs dominated the next period of play, but the Highlanders’ scrambling defence and dominance at the breakdown kept them at bay. The visitors then extended their lead when Rob Thompson stepped off his right foot and raced away to score under the posts. Sopoaga’s conversion and another penalty made it 23-6 at the break.
But Naholo’s yellow card, for two high tackles in quick succession, changed the complexion of the game, with the Waratahs scoring 21 points against 14 men. Foley took an inside ball from Kurtley Beale and dived over under the posts, Beale broke through a couple of tackles and sent Israel Folau away, whose darting run resulted in Foley’s second.
The flyhalf kicked a penalty goal to extend the lead to seven points with 10 minutes to go, only for Waratahs replacement Paddy Ryan to be sin-binned for a cynical infringement at the breakdown after Shannon Frizell had been brought down just short of the tryline.
But the Highlanders were unable to add to their tally as the Waratahs secured the second-biggest comeback win in a Super Rugby playoff.
Waratahs – Tries: Bernard Foley (2), Israel Folau. Conversions: Bernard Foley (3). Penalties: Foley (3).
Highlanders – Tries: Waisake Naholo, Rob Thompson. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalties: Sopoaga (3).
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley (c), 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Will Miller, 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Tom Robertson.
Subs: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Brad Wilkin, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Cam Clark, 23 Bryce Hegarty.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Tei Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Jackson Hemopo, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Ask Seiuli, 18 Kalolo Tuiloma, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Matt Faddes.
Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images