The Waratahs, completely outplayed in the first half against the Highlanders, gave the defending champions a big scare in almost coming back from the dead in Sydney tonight.
This game, a replay of one of last year's semifinals, appeared a mismatch in the first half, before a crazy sequence of events after the break saw the home side wrest the momentum and score four tries to give themselves a big chance of victory.
They were down and out at 30-0 after 55 minutes, but scored 26 unanswered points to shock the visitors in a thrilling match at Allianz Stadium.
An unlikely hat-trick of tries to replacement loose forward Jed Holloway, plus a fortunate one to replacement prop Tom Robertson put their side within touching distance. Holloway's third and his team's fourth, with nine minutes remaining, put immense pressure on the Highlanders, who had looked so in control in the first half but ended up defending a slim lead with grim determination.
It was all so different in the first half.
Embarrassed in the set piece, with the Waratahs losing three lineouts on their own throw and coughing up a scrum penalty when their pack was shunted backwards, Daryl Gibson's men went to the break 22-0 down and out of ideas.
They looked a shadow of the side which won the 2014 competition under former coach Michael Cheika, and while they are missing injured No10 Bernard Foley, they looked a confused side in desperate need of direction.
Kurtley Beale, outplayed by opposite first-five Lima Sopoaga, missed two penalties and that was as close as his team got until Holloway scored a double in 10 minutes and then Robertson escaped being called for offside by Kiwi referee Nick Briant to steal the ball from a Highlanders' defensive maul and go over.
Where Beale was jumpy and erratic in the first half, Sopoaga, pulled the strings with authority - kicking a dropped goal to push the score out to 30-0 and sending up the perfect bomb for Elliot Dixon to score his second try of the night.
Wing Ryan Tongia and No8 Liam Squire had earlier scored long-range efforts, with Dixon scoring his first thanks to a Ben Smith kick and Matt Faddes toe through.
Fullback Smith was again superb for his team and was streets ahead of fellow test player Israel Folau, but after Holloway scored his second the Waratahs looked a different team.
Beale ran on to the ball with more authority, and, as the Highlanders became more tired, the gaps started to appear more frequently.
In the end, however, the Waratahs gave themselves too much to do. "It was worst case in the first half. I was really proud of the guys in the second half, we showed what we can do, but that's not how you want to start games," captain Michael Hooper said.
"We couldn't go any further behind so we just started playing."
Highlanders 30 (Ryan Tongia, Liam Squire, Elliot Dixon 2 tries; Lima Sopoaga 2 cons, pen)
Waratahs 26 (Jed Holloway 3, Tom Robertson tries; Kurtley Beale 2 cons)
Highlanders v Waratahs - Match centre