The Highlanders have blitzed the Waratahs 49-12 to keep their small finals hopes alive. The match was hardly a contest in the first half, with the Highlanders facing more competition from racing the clock than the Waratahs, running in 6 tries in the first half to race out to a 42-7 lead at the break.
Whilst the Waratahs showed some fight after the break, it was ultimately in vain as the Highlanders were simply too strong for the understrength Waratahs, who will rue failing to rest their key players at earlier stages of the season.
The Waratahs got off to a nightmare start after Josh McKay put a lovely kick through into space, exposing the Waratahs back three before forcing the error from a gallant Will Miller to pounce on the loose ball to score the opening try of the match.
The Highlanders would double their score inside 10 minutes after excellent counter-rucking by Jackson Hemopo caused the turnover, allowing Waisake Naholo to sprint down the sideline before Tevita Lit capitalised on the strung-out Waratahs backline to cross in the corner.
Josh Ioane would continue his solid night with the boot, converting from the sideline to make it 14-0 against the Waratahs and 14-10 against the clock.
The Highlanders would continue their dominance, camping inside the Waratahs 22 for the best part of 19 phases, with Thomas Franklin finally finding a way through the defence to extend their lead out to 21-0 after 20 minutes.
This was followed just minutes later through Naholo who muscled his way through the soft defence from Ashley-Cooper to score under the dot for a 28-0 lead after 24 minutes.
The Waratahs would finally show some resistance after Lalakai Foketi caused a turnover at the break-down, with Mack Mason putting through a pinpoint kick for Curtis Rona, who found support from Hugh Sinclair who raced away to draw to fullback to allow Alex Newsome to score.
Unfortunately, this resistance was futile, with the Highlanders striking back in the form of a penalty try from a rolling maul after Tom Robertson was deemed to have entered the maul from the side, resulting in the try and a stint on the sideline for 10.
The Highlanders took full advantage of the missing prop, dominating the Waratahs scrum after Mason over-kicked the restart for the second time in the half. This provided perfect field possession to allow Teihorangi Walden to score from the crash ball by Aaron Smith to push the score-line out to 42-7 at half time.
After a rapid first half, both teams seemed drained at the start of the second half, trading sloppy handling mistakes and penalties throughout the first twenty minutes of the second half. Both teams failed to gain any traction during this period, with the biggest metre gainer coming by a streaker during the 60th minutes.
The Waratahs would finally show their class in the 65th minutes when the combo of Miller and Wells caused the turnover on the 50-metre line, providing the side with great field possession to allow them to attack.
They were ultimately rewarded when Mason found Will Miller close to the wing, who took advantage of a three on one overlap, passing to Tasi who would draw the fullback to reward Mason for starting the break with his first Super Rugby try.
This effort seemed to revitalise the Highlanders who controlled possession and field territory for the remaining 10 minutes of the match, which was capped off by a 50m run by Rob Thompson to ice the contest and give the Highlanders a 49-12 bonus point win.
The Turning Point
Besides the opening whistle, the real turning point was the last month of play, in which Gibson and the NSW staff failed to rest key players, ensuring that they were forced to play a weakened NSW side who had little continuity with each other.
The GAGR MOTM
Tough to single out just one player, but Rob Thompson was dominant in defence and attack, running for 100m from 12 carries, along with four broken tackles and a try. Credit must go to Li, Smith and Squire for their efforts in blowing out the Waratahs throughout the match.
Tough to do a Wallaby Watch with so many of the Waratahs “Wallaby” contingency rested and conceding 42 points in the first half. However, Will Miller was solid across the match despite his error during the first try along with committed performances from Curtis Rona and Michael Wells.
Tries: McKay (7′), Li (10′), Franklin (19′), Naholo (24′), Penalty Try (35′), Walden (39′), Thompson (80′)
Cons: Ioane 5/5 (8′, 11′, 19′, 24′, 39′), Dixon 1/1 (80′)
Tries: Newsome (29′), Mason (71′)
Cons: Mason 1/2 (29′)
Cards: Robertson (35′) – side entry to a maul in a try-scoring position