The Waratahs fought back to beat the Highlanders 30-23 in a thrilling Super Rugby quarter-final at Allianz Stadium, Sydney.
Bernard Foley scored 25 points, including a five-minute brace, in a stunning comeback by the Tahs, who trailed 6-23 after 53 minutes.
It was a scintillating period of play by New South Wales, digging deep, their big-game players stood up and took the game by the scruff of the neck.
It is the second biggest comeback in a playoff game in Super Rugby history: an upset for the ages.
The Waratahs will travel to South Africa and take on the Lions at Ellis Park after they defeated the Jaguares 40-23 in the City of gold.
This was the ultimate embodiment of the “game of two halves” cliché.
Kurtley Beale, Israel Folau and Foley’s inspired performances cut the Kiwis to shreds with an unbelievable seven-minute blitz.
Foley scored twice, either side of Folau’s try, overturning a 17-point deficit, scoring 21-points to take a 27-23 lead.
The Wallaby standoff then kicked a late penalty to give his team a converted try cushion before some heroic defending by the 14-man Waratahs, kept the Highlanders at bay.
Waisake Naholo had earlier equalled Joe Roff and Bryan Habana’s playoff try-scoring record with his seventh finals five-pointer.
But his most important contribution favoured the home team, turning the game their way in a moment he will want to forget.
The winger was yellow carded for a high tackle on 52 minutes, and the Australians made his team pay.
The game had been all Highlanders.
Naholo and Rob Thompson’s tries and the boot of Lima Sopoaga, gave the Highlanders a 17-point first-half lead, one they could not defend.
The last time these two sides met was in May when the Tahs ended one of rugby’s most incredible losing streaks when they routed the Highlanders 41-12 at the same ground.
The Waratahs victory ended 722 days of misery for Australian teams in the trans-Tasman rivalry, going back to May 2016.
This was not going to be a repeat, in fact, at halftime, the Waratahs looked to be on the end of a beating similar to the one they dished out all those months back.
Lima Sopoaga and Foley traded penalties as the Tahs led 6-3 before Naholo sped to the try-line in the 11th-minute.
The visitors were employing short four and five-man lineouts to create mismatches in midfield, and it worked a treat.
They got their desired mismatch in midfield after Curtis Rona shot the line, creating an overlap out wide, which Naholo finished.
Sopoaga added another three before setting up Thompson’s try with some well-timed running and an offload sent the centre away.
there are no points four scoring three or more tries, so the Kiwis opted for posts whenever they had an opportunity.
With less than five minutes remaining in the half, Sopoaga increased his side’s advantage.
Game of two halves.
Some early second-half pressure was absorbed by the Aussies, and just as well because another try for the visitors would have ended the game as a contest.
Instead, they fought back, turning the game on its head after Naholo’s sin-binning.
They used the space in the backs to perfection, stretching the opposition before striking three knock-out blows.
It was an exhibition in finishing using an extra man to punch holes in the defence.
Some magic by Beale, whose show-and-go before side-stepping off his right and offloading to Foley on his inside shoulder, got the ball rolling.
The standoff dived over under the sticks.
Beale was the architect of the next try after a sloppy Highlanders lineout at halfway was stolen by Nick Phipps.
the ball was recycled quickly to Beale, who burst through a huge hole and sped into the opposition’s 22.
He drew the defender and popped to Folau, who was ankle tapped before the line, but his momentum carried him over.
It was Beale, Foley, Phipps and Folau who all combined for the third score in the 60th minute.
Beale took Phipps’ pass at first receiver, stepped across and passed to Foley, who played Folau.
The fullback saw a gap and stepped inside before playing an inside ball to Phipps in support inside the Highlanders 22.
Phipps drew the cover defence and sent his halfback partner away for his double.
From way behind, to in total control.
That’s how much the yellow card played a part in the fortunes and misfortunes of both teams.
The Highlanders were blown away and never quite recovered from it.
Foley’s late penalty gave his team a small converted try cushion, but it was their defence in the final 10 minutes that won an unlikely and historic victory.
More to follow…
Final score: Waratahs 30 (6) Highlanders 23 (23)
Tries – Foley (2), Folau
Pen – Foley (3)
Con – Foley (3)
Cards – Ryan (Yellow, 74′)
Tries – Naholo, Thompson
Pen – Sopoaga (3)
Con – Sopoaga (2)
Cards – Naholo (Yellow, 52′)
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Ref 1: Nic Berry
Assistant Ref 2: Will Houston
TMO: George Ayoub
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley (captain), 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.
Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Brad Wilkin, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Cameron Clark, 23 Bryce Hegarty.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Kalolo Tuiloma, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Matt Faddes.