The Waratahs fell just short of reigning Super Rugby champions the Highlanders in a 40-35 trial loss on Friday night.
A 70th minute try to Highlanders captain Ben Smith handed the home side the lead for the third time in a see-sawing match and that score proved the ultimate decider.
Returning Wallabies Bernard Foley and Israel Folau wasted little time in making their presence felt for NSW, one week out from the Super Rugby season proper.
Kurtley Beale had a perfect night in front of goal, kicking seven from seven conversions.
Fullback Folau played just over half the match, showing some positive signs in a tight opening period in which the largest lead was eight points.
Foley was injected later in the match, setting up former All Black Zac Guildford with a critical try midway through the second half.
The lead was yo-yoing in the gripping match, after the Highlanders struck early through Malakai Fekitoa, the first in a hat-trick of tries for the winger.
It was a high-scoring opening half, with five tries between the two sides and just one point separating them at the break.
Waratahs captain Michael Hooper exerted his influence on the early stages of the match, with a quick reply to Fekitoa’s first try and some trademark breakdown dominance.
Two Highlanders penalties off the boot of Lima Sopoaga put the home side in front midway through the first half as they began to settle into the game.
Number eight Jed Holloway finished off a NSW set piece with their second evening, with hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau nabbing a five-pointer in the dying stages of the half to stretch their lead to eight points.
Recent addition Bryce Hegarty made the most of his injection off the bench, scoring a try almost immediately after half-time for the Waratahs, before tries to Waisake Naholo and Fekitoa turned the tables.
The deft attack from Foley handed Guildford a try to snatch back the lead for NSW as the time ticked down but Highlanders captain Smith returned the favour with his 70th minute matchwinner.
Hayden Parker sealed the result for the Highlanders with a penalty in the final minutes.
The win gives the Waratahs a 1-5 record over preseason, with every match going down to the wire.
NSW kicks off its Super Rugby season against the Queensland Reds on Saturday February 27 at Allianz Stadium.