The heroes and highlights of Waratahs’ win for the ages
AFTER producing their second biggest comeback in Super Rugby history, the Waratahs are through to the final four.
Daryl Gibson's side overcame a 23-6 halftime deficit on Saturday and ran in 24 unanswered points to take down the Highlanders.
The Waratahs have now crossed the Indian Ocean and will play the Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday (11.05pm AEST) for a spot in the final.
But first, let's reflect on the five key moments which proved pivotal in NSW's 30-23 triumph at Allianz Stadium.
1) WHO DARES WINS
Waisake Naholo's yellow card is the obvious answer.
After all, the Waratahs scored 21 points with Naholo off the field to storm into a lead they would not relinquish.
But an intercept from big winger Taqele Naiyaravoro set up that match turning moment.
With NSW under the pump on their own line, Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith spotted a four on two overlap to his right.
Smith cut out Lima Sopoaga and Ben Smith with a trademark flat pass hoping to find either Rob Thompson or Waisake Naholo for a dagger try.
But Naiyaravoro - whose defence is often questioned - sensed the danger and took a massive gamble which paid off as he intercepted and took off for a 50m gallop to completely swing the momentum.
With the defence backpedalling, prop Sekope Kepu charged forward as a desperate Naholo made two reckless tackle attempts and got his marching orders from Angus Gardner.
Had the Highlanders scored, it would surely have been game, set, match.
2) TAKING YOUR CHANCES
Throughout the Super Rugby season, Australian teams have largely struggled to capitalise on numerical advantages with opposition players in the bin or sent off.
The Brumbies were perhaps most guilty against the Jaguares and Crusaders as they failed to hold onto the ball and build pressure.
The Waratahs, on the other hand, were ruthless in both of their wins against the Highlanders.
They ran riot when Tevita Nabura was sent off in May and again with Naholo off the field on Saturday.
Experienced playmaker Kurtley Beale was crucial to this, as the inside centre squared the attack and threw try assists to Bernard Foley and Israel Folau.
Up until then, Waratahs had been guilty of playing too lateral.
But the light flicked when Naholo went off, as Beale began to run the ball from first receiver.
It didn't pay off the first time but he persisted and was richly rewarded.
3) WHO WANTS IT MORE?
Anyone who wonders why Nick Phipps has played 64 Tests should take a look at the feisty halfback's effort in the 56th minute.
Highlanders lock Tom Franklin's lineout tap went astray and Phipps showed the most urgency to beat his opponents to the ball on halfway.
From the turnover, the Waratahs spread the ball immediately to Beale who burnt the defence on the outside before hitting Folau with a pinpoint pass and the fullback showed his excellent finishing ability to score.
It triggered memories of Ireland coach Joe Schmidt's quote from June when he marvelled at Phipps' desire in making a trysaving tackle on Keith Earls in Melbourne.
"Another one of those Nick Phipps specials," Schmidt said.
Waratahs captain and longtime halves partner Bernard Foley was equally impressed with his desire against the Highlanders.
"I think the turning point was probably Nick diving on that ball," Foley said.
"There was a couple of loose balls over the back of the lineout.
"Nick showed some great intent there and sort of swung the momentum."
4) MILLER TIME ON THE BALL
Those three quickfire tries gave them the lead, but equally it was the Waratahs defence that won them the game.
There were a number of huge, one on one, trysaving tackles, including a beauty from Foley on Naholo five metres out.
Another big play was Will Miller's breakdown penalty in the 65th minute.
After 18 phases, veteran lock Rob Simmons had made a tackle on Elliot Dixon.
Miller, the former dairy farmer and Northern Suburbs captain, swooped over the ball and won his side a penalty as Dixon failed to release.
It typified the Waratahs determination in the second half.
NSW would of course love to have injured skipper Michael Hooper on the field.
But Miller is proving an excellent replacement in the No 7 jersey as Hooper's hamstring continues to heal.
5) THE BACKBONE OF THE TAHS SUCCESS
There was a poignant moment in the 74th minute as Sekope Kepu jogged back out onto the park.
The veteran tighthead was required for one last push after Paddy Ryan had been sinbinned for a professional four and a small but vocal crowd expressed their appreciation.
Few players have worn the Waratahs jersey with as much distinction as Kepu.
And as the Highlanders tried to barge their way over the line, NSW's scrum stood firm despite packing down with seven on some occasions and winger Alex Newsome on the flank on others.
Tolu Latu's ability also deserves a mention and the celebrations started after they secured their own scrum ball to allow Jake Gordon to kick to touch and seal a crazy comeback win.