The Waratahs’ hopes of a perfect South Africa tour have ended at their first stop with a 28-21 loss to the Bulls.
NSW has not won in Pretoria since 2002 and though they put in a fighting performance, it wasn't enough for them to clinch a victory.
A victory would have drawn them level with the Rebels and Brumbies at the top of the Australian Super Rugby conference but instead, they will leave Pretoria with their season truly hanging in the balance.
The Waratahs backline functioned better than it has in a number of weeks, looking dangerous with the ball, though the forwards were outclassed especially at scrum time.
Momentum swung throughout the clash with the Bulls sprinting out to an early lead but the Waratahs able to peg the hosts back at crucial times.
The absence of Jack Dempsey (back), especially, was obvious in a clash where the Waratahs didn't really impose themselves physically.
Waratahs skipper Michael Hooper lamented some missed opportunities and defensive mistakes, speaking post-match.
"We certainly put a lot of pressure on the Bulls and they were strong enough to hold us out there - we had a couple of big linebreaks and they chased us down, they slowed up the ball and then we went to the scrum and their scrum was fantastic today," he said.
"Probably let them in a bit easy there - two quite easy tries, one intercept and then one right at the line there near the end.
"(We need to improve our) Discipline, we gave Pollard a lot of shots at goal which could've made the score a bit bigger."
The Waratahs stole a lineout in the fifth minute to spark their first serious attacking charge but it was the Bulls' Handre Pollard who slotted the first points of the afternoon, with an eighth-minute penalty.
Bulls fullback Warrick Gelant made the most of a defensive overlap to score the first try of the day, easily slipping through a gap in the Waratahs' line.
NSW responded perfectly, and almost immediately, with Karmichael Hunt forcing a turnover and sparking a speedy attacking chain finished off by halfback Nick Phipps.
Phipps had a Jekyll and Hyde opening half, gifting the next Bulls try to no. 8 Duane Vermuelen after his own spectacular finish.
The halfback threw an intercept pass off a lineout, Vermuelen gobbled the opportunity up and using every bit of speed he possessed to score his side's second before another Pollard penalty stretched that advantage.
Pollard continued to keep the scoreboard ticking over with his penalty goals with the Bulls on the right end of an 11-6 penalty count by full time.
Just as it seemed the Bulls had ground the Waratahs into submission, Kurtley Beale brought the spark back out with a try in the 50th minute.
The Waratahs were being outclassed at scrum time but in open play their backs looked more dangerous than they have for much of the season.
Curtis Rona dropped the ball as he dove for a try midway through the second half, attempting to finish off a chain of slick attacking passes but the flow of the game seemed to be turning in NSW’s favour.
Rona made no mistake the second time round, bursting down the edge to score and even up the ledger.
The Bulls were not done yet with replacement loosehead Simphiwe Matanzima throwing his body between two Waratahs looking at other targets and stealing back a seven-point lead with 11 minutes left.
NSW were camped in their attacking zone, going to the corner at the first opportunity but a Michael Hooper knock-on transitioning into a maul snuffed out that chance.
That wasn’t their last look at the line - Rona was pinged for a forward pass as the Waratahs mounted one last attempt at a try and the clock simply beat them in the end.
The Waratahs travel to Johannesburg next week to take on the Lions.
Tries: Gelant, Vermuelenm Matanzima
Pens: Pollard 2
Tries: Phipps, Beale, Rona
Cons: Foley 3