Two tries from flanker Elliot Dixon saw the Highlanders hold on to secure a 26-30 victory over the Waratahs in Sydney on Friday.
A true game of two halves, the number of handling errors and mistakes from the Waratahs was proven to be costly as they failed to convert possession and territory into points early on. The Highlanders also made them pay as the visitors ran rampant in the first half.
Tries from Ryan Tongia, Liam Squire and Elliot Dixon were evident of the domination the Highlanders had over their hosts, but a hat-trick from debutant Jed Holloway was not enough as the visitors held out in the end to bag a valuable victory away from home.
Two missed penalties and a knock-on metres from the try line from Kurtley Beale, in the first half, hurt the 2014 champions as the teams went into the locker rooms with the scoreboard at 0-22.
The home side were rewarded for their relentless attack early on after the Highlanders were penalised for being offside. Kurtley Beale kicked for touch as they opted against going for the three points on offer.
Moments later Siosiua Halanukonuka was penalised for obstructing Israel Folau. This time Beale went for the penalty attempt, his long range effort went wide.
The Highlanders then produced the firsrt try, a sneaky offload from Rob Thompson sent Tongia over. Lima Sopoaga adding the extras to make the score 0-7.
Michael Hooper only just managed to get a grip of Malakai Fekitoa’s jersey as the All Black broke away for a sure five-pointer. However, Sopoaga slotted a penalty to extend the Highlanders lead and take the score to 0-10.
Overpowering the Waratahs’ scrum saw the visitors awarded another penalty allowing Sopoaga to add another three points.
Adding to the Waratahs’ problems, a Wycliff Palu handling error was pounced on by Squire and he went over for their second try, Sopoaga adding the extras to extend the score to 0-17.
Dixon then squeezed in past Matt Faddes and Ben Smith to scoop up and cross the whitewash, after the full-back grubbered past a rushing Waratahs’ defence, before Faddes guided the ball back in field with his foot allowing the number six to score. Sopoaga missed the conversion.
The Waratahs only real chance of scoring a try in the first half came when Beale lost the ball metres from the Highlanders try line.
After the interval momentum was still all with visitors, as a crossfield kick from Sopoaga was won in the air by Dixon to go over for his second try within the first few minutes of the second half.
Sopoaga slotted a drop goal extending the lead for the visitors to 0-30 as the contest looked settled, before the most remarkable of comebacks.
There was a little hope for the home side when replacement loose forward Jed Holloway went over for his first Super Rugby try in the 55th minute, but it was Holloway again that crossed the whitewash less than ten minutes later, the loose forward crashing over after Beale drew two Highlanders defenders to go over in the corner. Beale missed the conversion.
Debutant Tom Robertson scored a controversial try after the replacement prop scooped the ball up from the side of the ruck, Beale making no mistake with the conversion to take the score to 19-30, before Holloway crossed for his third when the home side powered over the Highlanders’ try line, Beale succeeding with the conversion to take the score to 26-30 to set up an intense finish.
At this point it seemed like the home side would stage a comeback, but it was a little too late as the Highlanders defence held out firmly to secure win.
Tries: Holloway 3, Tom Robertson
Cons: Beale 3
Tries: Tongia, Squire, Dixon 2
Cons: Sopoaga 2
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
Replacements: 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 (cc), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Ryan Tongia, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (cc), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds
Replacements: 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
Referee: Nick Briant
Assistant Referees: James Leckie, Graham Cooper
TMO: Ian Smith