Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson paid credit to his team’s defensive fight - and a pugnacious home crowd - after NSW surged home to beat the Highlanders in a memorable quarter-final win at Allianz Stadium.
The Waratahs booked the first semi-final berth since 2015 after scoring 24 unanswered points in the second half to secure an unlikely victory. The Tahs were poor in the opening half and trailed 23-6 at the break, but a yellow card to Highlanders’ wing Waisake Naholo helped the hosts launch a three-try burst that shot them into the lead.
The Highlanders ran amok against a fractured defence in the first 40 minutes but the Waratahs got their act together in the second and didn’t concede a point, even when the home side went down to 14 men in the last six minutes.
“As much as laud our attack, defence won us the game tonight,” Gibson said.
“I am incredibly proud of our team. I thought they showed tremendous fight in the second half in particular.”
Gibson, who said he’d instructed his team at halftime to fix the ruck and to play in the Highlanders’ half, was also quick to praise the small but vocal crowd of 12,067 who braved a chilly night at Allianz Stadium.
Several times the crowd started up a “NSW, NSW” chant.
“What I loved about tonight was the people who turned up really got behind this team,” Gibson said.
“You could really hear them and it really picked the boys up, particularly going down that yellow card and you could still hear people chanting NSW, NSW. It’s just fantastic.”
Waratahs captain Bernard Foley echoed his coach’s comments.
“That’s definitely up there. We talk about that ’14 campaign as a good memory but to win out there, trailing by 17 points, was really special,” Foley said.
“For the guys to lift was really special, and as Daryl said, the support coming home in that second half, to hear the crowd get so vocal, it definitely lifted us.”
“If that’s the last game we play in that stadium, it’s a pretty good one.”
The Waratahs acknowledged they were ordinary in the first 40 minutes, with lost lineouts, poor discipline and a disconnected defensive line that was picked apart by the Kiwis.
But Gibson said that can ultimately be viewed as a positive.
“I thought we were really poor in the first half. We lost four line outs, couldn’t get any possession, couldn’t hang onto anything. Couldn’t string any phases together. We were getting behind in the penalty count,” he said.
“On balance we played very poorly and still won the game. It shows we are a good side and we have plenty of growth in us. We have things we have to fix up for next week but those are things that are easily fixable, we had a good line out all year.”
Foley said the team always had the belief it was a team that could challenge for the title this year but stressed the team must learn to be clinical in big moments in the match.
The stand-in skipper said he’d told his team “Let’s not die wondering” at halftime.
Michael Hooper is not a chance to play in the semi-final, said Gibson, and both Michael Wells and Rob Simmons picked up head knocks during the game, so will have to go through HIA return-to-play protocols this week.