Super Rugby 2017: Waratahs lose 50-47 in thrilling trial against Highlanders

Thrills: NSW breakaway Michael Hooper breaks through the Highlanders defensive line. Photo: James Brickwood
Thrills: NSW breakaway Michael Hooper breaks through the Highlanders defensive line. Photo: James Brickwood
Irae Simone cross the line for the Waratahs. Photo: James Brickwood

Irae Simone cross the line for the Waratahs. Photo: James Brickwood

A Highlanders penalty goal after the siren has sunk a valiant Waratahs outfit that came back from 22 points down before falling at the last hurdle in their final pre-season trial.

Down 33-18 at half-time and 40-18 after 50 minutes, the Waratahs somehow kept themselves in the match by drawing level 40-40 with 15 minutes remaining in what was a modified 90-minute game.

They hit the lead 47-40 when new recruit Con Foley scored down the right edge to put NSW ahead on the back of 29 unanswered points.

The Highlanders returned serve with three minutes remaining before a penalty goal after full-time put the nail in the Waratahs' coffin as the visitors prevailed 50-47 in an enthralling trial match in front of a 5000-strong crowd at Brookvale Oval.

"[There's] plenty to work on," NSW coach Daryl Gibson said. "The wind had a pretty strong factor first half. We were pretty disappointed with the way we conceded tries. At the start we looked a bit flat and their energy was a bit better."

Two tries to Taqele Naiyaravoro, who is every chance of pushing for a starting wing spot against the Western Force next Saturday, kept NSW in the contest.

When both full strength sides were on the field, the Waratahs were taught a lesson in the cost of defensive lapses - via All Blacks star Ben Smith - but they must be given plenty of credit for the resolve they showed, particularly with a number of non-Wallabies, to dig themselves out of trouble and go so close to claiming a memorable win.

"I really liked the guys who came on in the last 30 minutes," Gibson said. "Ned Hanigan I thought really threw himself around the paddock. Brad Wilkin; another excellent performance."

With hundreds of caps departing the Waratahs this season in the form of Tatafu Polota-Nau, Kurtley Beale, Dave Dennis and Wycliff Palu, the responsibility has only increased for captain Michael Hooper.

However, for the 65 minutes Hooper played, he was outstanding in a positive sign he has picked up where he left off after a successful spring tour.

"You really want to bottle that DNA and give it out to everyone else because he's into everything," Gibson said. "He really leads this team by example."

It was a night of experimentation for the Waratahs, with Reece Robinson - who kept quite about his prowess with the boot - given kicking duties, perhaps as a back-up to Foley and replacement for Kurtley Beale this year.

He booted seven from nine attempts and converted a nice kick near fans spawned on the hill at Brookvale Oval to bring the Waratahs back to respectability, still down 33-18 down at the main break.

There are still, however, a number of questions heading into round one against the Force in just over a weeks time.

One would expect Nick Phipps to come back into the starting halfback spot. While Jake Gordon held his own and produced clean ball to Foley, his overall package isn't as enticing yet as that of Phipps, who played more minutes than his understudy.

Irae Simone, at inside-centre, did enough to keep his spot, scoring a try to reduce the margin to less than 10 points in the second half. He carried with intent and was one of the Waratahs' best in defence.

"It was a good game for him tonight because it was the first time at that pace," Gibson said. "Some nice touches, I think he would have learnt a lot from tonight."

The topic of defence though is somewhat of a worry given six tries were let in by the Waratahs in the first half, something that did not please Gibson.

The fancy footwork of Highlanders players, perhaps still with Tens fever, befuddled Waratahs players who were defending one-on-one and coming off second best.

Winger Harry Jones showed enough positive signs in attack, not necessarily his kicking, but in reality was found out by a rampant Highlanders right edge.

Bernard Foley came off with a head knock but is expected to be cleared for round one, while Andrew Kellaway will receive scans after picking up a shoulder injury.

This story Super Rugby 2017: Waratahs lose 50-47 in thrilling trial against Highlanders first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.