A 72nd-minute Bernard Foley intercept try has handed the Waratahs a 31-26 win over the Rebels, and stretched their Australian conference lead.
Friday night’s encounter was a complete turnaround from the last meeting between the two teams, where the Rebels petered out in a dismal second half, with Melbourne bringing all the energy for much of the second half.
The Waratahs held a seven-point half-time lead, but Melbourne wore that down and Reece Hodge penalties helped them edge their way to an advantage as the game ticked on, leading by as many as nine points.
A Ned Hanigan try cut that margin back to just two points, before Foley snatched an unlikely intercept that was ultimately enough to snatch the win and keep the Australian conference lead in the Waratahs' hands.
The Rebels had a final chance to attack, with two penalties in their attacking zone, but a knock-on put it back in the Waratahs' hands before yet another Melbourne penalty gave them on very last chance, but it was ultimately too late.
It was a fitting derby for two teams battling for that top spot, and it was a story in many ways of who stepped up without a host of big names gracing the stage.
Rebels lock Matt Philip more than made up for the absence of skipper Adam Coleman in one of his best club performances, while no. 8 Amanaki Mafi was bursting his way through defenders in his trademark style.
Will MIller put in a tireless performance for NSW, though carrying a rib injury that looked to cause him pain at times, with his work rate one of the highest in the side, clinching a pivotal turnover to finish the game.
It was the Rebels who put down some early markers, bursting out of the line and putting most of the pressure on their visitors, desperate to make a statement.
Billy Meakes led the charge for the Rebels but the centre found himself sitting in the bin after 15 minutes, for a cynical play in a ruck, appearing to stick his foot up to impede a Waratahs recycle.
Cam Clark was on track for a certain try, before Sefa Naivalu forced his direct opponent to lose the ball as he dove for the line.
Taqele Naiyaravoro didn’t have any trouble putting his opportunity down, with Kurtley Beale spotting a gap, wrong footing Rebels fullback Dane Haylett-Petty and handing an outside pass to the mammoth winger.
Foley opted for a chance at the sticks to stretch the Waratahs lead, before the Rebels showed their attacking prowess four minutes later, with Dane haylett-Pet
It was a score orchestrated by a perfectly executed set piece, with Haylett-Petty fooling the NSW defence to slip through a gap and score, evening things up.
NSW had their own superb attacking reply, with Will Miller finishing off a chain of slick passes to score.
Only an Angus Cottrell fumble stopped the Rebels from potentially topping their opponents just before half-time, with the Waratahs taking a seven-point lead into the break.
Colby Faingaa pulled out a pivotal turnover, ending a 15-phase Waratahs run to kick off the second half, and they were the ones to draw first blood, through Michael Ruru.
The Rebels had all the hallmarks of a team determined to put an early season trend of fadeouts behind them, against a fierce rival and the current Australian benchmark.
Melbourne continued to pepper the Waratahs line and only an Alex Newsome intervention prevented a Geoff Parling pass from putting Jack Maddocks over in the 50th minute.
From there it was a back and forward battle, with the Waratahs' try-scoring finishes enough to snatch the lead and give them breathing space on top of the conference.
The Waratahs host the Sunwolves next weekend, while the Rebels travel to Brisbane to take on the Reds.
Tries: D Haylett-Petty, Ruru
Cons: Hodge 2
Pens: Hodge 4
Yellow Cards: Meakes (16’)
Tries: Naiyaravoro, Miler, Hanigan, Foley
Cons: Foley 4