Highlanders get thumped by Waratahs
The Highlanders' prospects of qualifying for the Super Rugby finals for the first time since 2002 likely hinge on Saturday's southern derby in Christchurch after the table-topping NSW Waratahs constructed a comprehensive 44-16 in Sydney today.
An unprecedented sixth successive win for the Australian conference winners enabled the Waratahs to wrap up the minor premiership at Allianz Stadium with a round to play - against the Reds in Brisbane on Saturday night.
Despite the magnitude of defeat and being unable to improve on 42 existing points, the fourth-placed Highlanders are still capable of featuring in the knockout format - their involvement could be already be assured if outcomes of the Chiefs/Blues and Brumbies/Force matches work in their favour on Friday night.
Otherwise they will need points at AMI Stadium on Saturday, where they will hope to atone for a controversial loss in Dunedin in late May.
An irrepressible second half by the Waratahs guaranteed victory, with a four-try bonus point secured by halfback Nick Phipps on the back of a dominant scrum releasing the pressure early in the final quarter.
Two more tries - including replacement wing Taqele Naiyaravoro's first since switching from the NRL's Wests Tigers - enhanced the occasion as the long-suffering Waratahs' dream of a celebrating a maiden championship in Sydney on August 2.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph admitted his side copped a "hiding" from a well-rounded outfit after limiting the Waratahs to a 11-9 advantage at the break, their narrowest halftime lead of the season.
He lamented a knock-on practically from the restart by Ben Smith that set the platform for Israel Folau's 12th of the season.
"We had good excitement in the changing shed, we received the kick off .... a little knock on and then try. That wasn't part of the plan," Joseph said, conceding the Waratahs did an excellent job containing the Highlanders counter attacking threats.
"We didn't really get an opportunities at all because we were scrambling all the time and when it did it was off turnover ball against a very good defensive team or in our own half.
"We just got a hiding, they're a very good team," he said, insisting the squad would regroup for the challenge posed by the Crusaders.
"We'll be fine. We just played the Wallabies, you wouldn't even know who our blokes are apart from two or three of them.
"There's total belief in each other, we've been through some hard times together. We just get on with it."
Seeking their first win in Sydney since 2007, the Highlanders were under pressure from the outset and were a man down in the 13th minute after Aaron Smith illegally - and unsuccessfully - tried to thwart a long-range try to Rob Horne by deflecting the ball from an offside position.
Despite that early setback the Highlanders were still in the contest until Ben Smith's blunder put the Waratahs back in control in the 41st minute.
Wallabies prop Sekope Kepu's momentum then carried him over as the advantage ballooned to 23-9, it was essential for the Highlanders to score next.
Ben Smith, who was limited to one run for 16-metres in the first half, sought to make amends for his handling lapse in the 57th minute but his break and support of Richard Buckman was ended by Beale's covering tackle - a frustration that summed up what was ultimately a record loss to the title favourites.
NSW Waratahs 44 (Rob Horne, Israel Folau, Sekope Kepu, Nick Phipps, Jacques Potgieter, Taqele Naiyaravoro tries; Bernard Foley 5 con 2 pen)
Highlanders 16 (Phil Burleigh try; Lima Sopoaga 3 pen; Hayden Parker con)