UPDATED: Rebels coach Dave Wessels has described a controversial Curtis Rona no-arms tackle that stopped Marika Koroibete in open space just short of the try line as a "game-changer" in a 20-15 loss to the Waratahs.
Handling errors and ill-discipline hurt the Rebels, who trailed by 10 points at half-time, while the Waratahs were able to unleash their experienced backline at crucial times to keep the hosts at arm’s length.
The Rebels were never able to peg the Waratahs back after finding themselves in that hole, leaving them stuck in second place in the Australian conference with a trip to Christchurch and a final round clash with the Chiefs to come.
Melbourne will pick up a losing bonus point from that loss, keeping them four points ahead of the Waratahs in the Australian conference.
NSW’s finals hopes, on the other hand, remain ever so faintly alive after that victory, keeping them within a win of leaping into the top eight.
Koroibete had some reason to be aggrieved that he was left tryless after being stopped short of the line by Curtis Rona in a no-arms tackle.
While that gives them some breathing space, and the lead in the Australian conference for now, the defeat still leaves plenty of time for the Rebels to be leapfrogged by teams below them with five matches left in round 16.
Coach Dave Wessels said he felt the incident was worth a card or a penalty try - a score that could have seen the Rebels steal the game.
"We were unlucky not to get a penalty try or at least a yellow card for Curtis Rona's no-arm tackle," he said.
"I mean Marika was going to score, 100% he was going to score. Those moments change the game."
Asked whether he would question the ruling with SANZAAR, Wessels said: "It’s not really my style (to follow that up), it's happened.
"it was unfortunate, that's a big moment in the game.
"If not a penalty try, I think a no-arms tackle that's certainly prevented a try. On different days that would have been a different decision for sure."
Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson said he felt the punishment at the time was sufficient.
"It wasn't dangerous, it wasn't around the head. Yep, there was no arms in the tackle, I think the correct sanction was applied," he said.
Regardless of that decision in the game, the Rebels had plenty of their own mistakes left to rue after leaving a host of chances to go begging.
In their last meeting, the Rebels burst out of the blocks before surrendering a lead but on Friday night, the Rebels never really got a foothold in an error-riddled performance.
While in that sense this night differed from that SCG clash, the battle for territory remained the same in another kick-heavy contest between the two Aussie sides.
Rebels winger Koroibete had close to his best game of the season, setting up a host of attacking chances and starting to show form at the right time of the year but it wasn't enough to break open the Waratahs' defence in critical moments.
The Waratahs' own back three were influential with Adam Ashley-Cooper scoring a spectacular try and Rona having a number of involvements.
In the flyhalf duel, Quade Cooper and Bernard Foley were both solid without being extraordinary, contributing to their sides on the scoreboard, while Kurtley Beale stood up at fullback in attack and with his kicking.
Waratahs skipper Michael Hooper put in his usual Herculean effort in defence, finishing with 20 tackles and two turnovers, followed closely by Michael Wells (17) and Foley (16).
Hooper said he was proud of the way the spine played the territory game.
"Putting their body on the line, I thought some of the guys there were outstanding, particularly in the forward pack," he said.
"Even guys - the older guys in our team like Adam, getting over the ball there, and unlucky not to get a couple of turnovers there at the end.
"But also really proud of the 9,10,15. Traditionally haven't been huge kickers of the ball and to look at a game plan where we knew it was going to be drizzly - the conditions probably led themselves to that, they stuck at it and particularly in the first half there was some really clever, smart rugby played.
"In the second half, we couldn't really maintain our possession so it had to go to a defensive part of the game which has probably been one of our stronger suits throughout the season but really credit to them and the defence."
It was the Waratahs who used their attacking potency to score first, with Bernard Foley sparking a slick attacking chain before Rona skipped out of a Dane Haylett-Petty tackle attempt on the edge.
Centre Adam Ashley-Cooper finished the team effort off to give the Waratahs the early advantage in what had been an arm wrestle to that point.
Cooper slotted a penalty for the Rebels in the 10th minute to narrow the margin but their own ill-discipline was costly with a 6-2 first-half count giving the Waratahs two three-pointers and a 10-point lead.
Wessels admitted the lopsided penalty count was a frustrating sight.
"I thought that’s on us, I thought we had lost our a little bit from a discipline point of view," he said.
"I think that's been a big improvement from us this season that we are able to then turn that situation around and get back on the front foot, which we did."
Melbourne was putting all the pressure on in attack and it looked like Cooper had finally found some pay in the 35th minute but the TMO found an Anaru Rangi knock-on in the phase earlier.
A long Jack Maddocks pass opened up the left edge for Koroibete, who offloaded to Dane Haylett-Petty before Cooper ran it over to narrow the margin once more, but that was the closest it got.
The Waratahs had a reply not long after with Rona finishing off an Ashley-Cooper break after an offload deflected off Reece Hodge’s legs for the Waratahs winger to pounce.
Koroibete had three involvements as the Rebels powered to their second try of the night, through Genia, whittling the gap down to five points.
The Rebels turned up the pace as the night went on but they couldn’t penetrate the Waratahs’ defensive line and a Harry Johnson-Holmes turnover relieved some pressure for NSW.
Every time the Rebels found some space in attack it seemed the Waratahs were able to force an error or the locals managed it themselves.
The had one last chance to attack after full-time, with a kick to touch, but somewhat fittingly a turnover ended the game.
Ultimately, the clock beat out the Rebels' chances and left them stranded in second place on the Australian conference, a spot that could see them drop out of the eight with still five matches left to play this weekend.
Hanigan’s night ended in the 26th minute with a concussion while Damien Fitzpatrick came off with a corked thigh.
The Waratahs take on the Brumbies in Parramatta next weekend while the Rebels travel to Christchurch to take on the Crusaders.
Tries: Cooper, Genia
Tries: Ashley-Cooper, Rona
Pens: Foley 3