Superb comeback sees Tahs storm into semis
"LET'S not die wondering," NSW skipper Bernard Foley told his teammates at half-time, with the Waratahs trailing 23-6 to the Highlanders.
What transpired next will be remembered in the annals of Waratahs history, as they stormed back to score 24 unanswered points to clinch a stunning 30-23 win and book a spot in the Super Rugby semi-finals.
The Waratahs looked dead and buried trailing 23-6 with 28 minutes remaining at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night.
But the match turned on its head in the 52nd minute when Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo was sin-binned for a high tackle on Sekope Kepu.
NSW roared into life and scored three tries in seven minutes to take a 27-23 lead before Naholo had re-entered play.
Foley scored two of those tries and kicked a late penalty before the Tahs bravely hung on in defence for the final six minutes with a man down to secure one of their greatest wins.
This is NSW's first trip to the semis since winning the title in 2014.
"That's definitely up there, we talk about that '14 campaign, it was a good memory, but to win out there trailing by 17 points was really special," Foley said.
"We spoke at half-time about let's not have any regrets at the end of this game, let's put it all out there and see how it falls.
"I said 'Let's not die wondering … let's play for each other' and the guys responded."
Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson added: "I'm incredibly proud of our team, I thought we showed tremendous fight in the second half," Gibson said.
"I said to the boys at half-time all we needed to do was sort our ruck out, the Highlanders were doing an excellent job there, and we just needed some possession at the right end of the field.
"And when we got those, we're a good side.
"What I loved about tonight was that the people who turned up really got behind this team, you could really hear them, it really picked the boys up - you can still hear people chanting 'NSW' and it's really fantastic."
Among the supporters was former Waratah Rob Horne, who this week revealed his right arm is paralysed after a career-ending injury suffered three months ago.
Foley's double and Israel Folau's try showed a spark that had been missing up until the yellow card.
Kurtley Beale stepped off his right foot and offloaded in contact to put Foley under the sticks.
Beale also created Folau's try two minutes later after making a break from inside his own half, palming off opposite number Teihorangi Walden and passing to the flying fullback.
Folau then played provider, making a break 60 metres out on the sideline, finding Nick Phipps in support inside, and the halfback passed to Foley who zipped through to score again.
Foley added a penalty in the 71st minute to extend NSW's lead to 30-23, ensuring the Highlanders needed a converted try.
Tahs prop Paddy Ryan was sin-binned with six minutes left on the clock after playing the ball on the ground after Highlanders backrower Shannon Frizell had been tackled just short of the tryline.
The Tahs' defence was battered in their quarter by a desperate Highlanders team but would not be broken.
NSW will now play the Lions in Johannesburg after they beat the Jaguares 40-23 in their quarter-final at Ellis Park in the overnight match.
Tahs backrower Michael Wells was knocked unconscious attempting a tackle in the 32nd minute. Both he and lock Rob Simmons are in doubt for the semi pending head injury assessments, while regular captain Michael Hooper will not recover from his hamstring injury in time.
The Highlanders held a 17-point advantage at the break, having held 65 per cent of the possession.
NSW's inability to secure their own ruck ball was killing their rhythm as Highlanders forwards consistently forced breakdown penalties.
The Highlanders were bossing the game after the first quarter and held a 20-6 lead by the 26th minute.
It was the worst scenario possible for the Tahs, who have tended to panic when chasing games this season, while the Otago men are experts at playing field position, applying pressure and strangling rivals out.
Foley had put NSW ahead 6-3 by the ninth minute after two penalty goals to Lima Sopoaga's one.
But Sopoaga created his side's first try by coasting through a gaping midfield hole between Foley and Kepu, before unleashing Naholo down the sideline in the 11th minute.
Clever interplay in the midfield again exposed the Tahs' defence in the 25th minute when centre Rob Thompson sprinted through the line after two offloads in tackles gave the centre space to score under the posts from 20 metres out.
NSW WARATAHS 30 (Bernard Foley 2, Israel Folau tries Foley 3 cons 3 pens) HIGHLANDERS 23 (Waisake Naholo, Rob Thompson tries Lima Sopoaga 2 cons 3 pens) at Allianz Stadium. Referee: Angus Gardner