The Waratahs have ended their season on a sour note after being smashed by the Highlanders 49-12 in Invercargill.
Coming into the match with a slim chance of making the finals but missing five Wallabies stars, the Waratahs were blown off the park in the opening 40 minutes and conceded five tries.
It looked like a cricket score in the making but the Tahs got their act together and held the Highlanders to one try in the the second half but the damage was well and truly done.
The hosts secured a bonus point that keeps their finals hopes alive heading into the weekend.
But it proved a sad farewell for the Waratahs’ careers of Nick Phipps and Curtis Rona, and Sekope Kepu sitting at home.
Kepu was one of the five Wallabies rested for the game under the Wallabies’ workload agreement, along with Michael Hooper, Rob Simmons, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale.
But coach Daryl Gibson’s gamble to hold off resting them in singles earlier in the year proved costly, as the Waratahs were overwhelmed in the opening 40 minutes by the Highlanders.
The Kiwis played the cold and slippery conditions beautifully, defending stoutly, kicking smartly and keeping the Waratahs under intense pressure.
The Highlanders swooped on mistakes by the Waratahs and had scored four tries inside 22 minutes, with Josh McKay, Tevita Li, Tom Franklin and Waisake Naholo all crossing.
Missing their leaders and main game controllers, the Waratahs’ were lost when they had the ball and the mass personnel changes all over their team unravelled what had been a strong defence all season.
Alex Newsome, who was one of the Waratahs’ best, scored a try in the 27th minute to make the scores 28-7 but the Highlanders weren’t done yet.
They were awarded a penalty try in the 34th minute when Tom Robertson was deemed to have brought down a rolling maul, and after he was binned, Teihorangi Walden scored another try on the hooter.
The second half saw the Waratahs rally, and with some good impact from the bench, they shored up their defence and started to make a contest of the game.
After controlling the ball better - and using better physicality - the Waratahs scored a nice try through Mack Mason in the 71st minute and looked like they might win the second half.
But the Highlanders posted one last try in the dying stages to round out an easy victory.
"The damage was done in the first half with 42-7. We started well but our skill errors let them into our area and they capitalised," Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson said.
"We’re proud they stuck at it and we went close to wining the second. We’re pleased we hung in there but overall disappointed to lose by such a margin,"
"We’re pretty disappointed with the result and how we finished."
Stand-in captain Nick Phipps paid credit to the Highlanders.
"They were very good in that first, they played the right footy and were willing to throw it around. The ball stuck in their hands and they preyed on our mistakes a bit," Phipps said.
"After that first half we were up against it, and I was very proud of how the boys hung in there in the second half.
It’s been a disappointing year for us, we haven’t performed as we should have and it is disappointing for the club but out there tonight are a lot of players who are going to be taking this team forward, and they’re going to better players after being blooded in one of the toughest cauldrons around."
Tries: McKay, Li, Franklin, Naholo, Penalty, Walden, Thompson
Cons: Ioane 5, Dixon
Tries: Newsome, Mason