Seven hundred and seventy days.
That’s how long it’s been since an Australian team won in New Zealand, as the Waratahs became the latest team felled across the Tasman, going down 44-28 to the Highlanders.
A year to the day since the Waratahs beat the Chiefs, the last Australian victory over a Kiwi team anywhere in the world, they looked to have remedied their sluggish starts with a half-time lead, but were unravelled in the second half by recklessness as much as anything else.
Two tries conceded with NSW a man down just after half-time proved the ultimate difference, leaving the Waratahs to rue a year-long drought against New Zealand teams.
In a season of dismal starts, the Waratahs held out the Highlanders early, but the Kiwis were their own worst enemy, conceding a penalty and coughing up a knock-on close to their line.
That turnaround in the first 40 wasn’t lost on skipper Michael Hooper, but the downward spiral in the second was the ‘killer’.
“We’ve wanted to have a focus on that (first half) and achieve that tonight, just that 20 minutes after half-time killed us,” he said.
“I thought it was a really positive first 40 by us, good defence in passages unfortunately letting the Highlanders in through penalties and things like that,”
“They were able to get points on board, get a roll, (then we had a) yellow card and those things spiraled and snowballed us out of the game unfortunately.”
Highlanders flyhalf Marty Banks had the first points, though, in the 15th minute making the most of a Tolu Latu breakdown infringement.
Ben Smith’s return was obvious from the opening minutes, with the All Blacks outside back breaking tackles easily in his comeback from an ankle injury.
Missed tackles plagued the Waratahs once again, and a Bernard Foley kick that found the leg of Luke Whitelock set up a controversial Richard Buckman try and a 10-point hole for the visitors.
Crucially, though, the Waratahs did what they haven’t for much of this year, particularly in their first halves, replying just three minutes later, with quick ball movement putting Israel Folau over to narrow the margin to just three points.
Banks punished the Waratahs in every shot he had, adding another penalty in the 34th minute to stretch the scores, after a super Highlanders scrum.
Confusion reigned when a Bernard Foley penalty attempt went under the crossbar and a Highlanders knock-on gave NSW a chance at a scrum.
A long-range loopy pass from halfback Nick Phipps put mammoth winger Taqele Naiyaravoro over in the corner to give the Waratahs an unlikely half-time lead.
That was rubbed out just six minutes after the break, with the Highlanders pushing a driving maul over the line, just a minute after a Dean Mumm yellow card for a dangerous tackle.
A pinpoint accurate Malakai Fekitoa kick put winger Tevita Li over in the 51st minute, but two uncharacteristic misses from Banks kept the Waratahs in the game as they returned to the full complement, before replacement back Rob Thompson had their fourth try in the 64th minute.
Two Jake Gordon tries in eight minutes broke the Waratahs second-half duck and prevented a Highlanders bonus point, but those scores were the bread in a Highlanders sandwich, with Daniel Lienert-Brown and Lima Sopoaga sealing the result in the meantime.
NSW scrumhalf Nick Phipps had his best game of the season but exited the game early and is set to undergo scans on Sunday for an ankle concerns.
Phipps was the second of two injury concerns for the Waratahs, after Sekope Kepu went off with a hand injury.
“I think we got momentum then and we managed to score off that lineout and things changed from there,” he said.
“We knew they were going come here and really want to play and really want to test us and I think they did that.
“We knew they were going to bring that intensity and knew if we could stick it out there might be chances late in the game.”
The Waratahs head to Queenstown this week ahead of another cross-conference match against the Chiefs, sitting four points behind the Brumbies in the Australian conference.
Tries: Buckman, Coltman, Li, Thompson, Lienert-Brown, Sopoaga
Cons: Banks 2, Sopoaga
Tries: Gordon 2, Folau, Phipps
Cons: Foley 4