The NSW Waratahs have avoided the ultimate fall from grace, coming from behind to beat Moana Pasifika at Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium.
After a sleepy start, Darren Coleman’s side overturned a 0-17 deficit to pull off a dramatic 26-20 victory.
It wasn’t without some late drama either, with the Waratahs forced to defend their line in the dying minutes.
“It was really tough,” a relieved Waratahs captain Jake Gordon said, with the halfback stunned by the fact it was their first win across the ditch since 2015.
“Moana came out of the blocks really well, which we expected, we know it’s their first game in front of a good crowd at Mt Smart, but I was happy with the way we fought back there.
“It wasn’t pretty, some of our kicks were a bit off and they put a lot of heat on at the breakdown, but I’m really happy with the win.”
The win saw the Waratahs incredibly leapfrog the Queensland Red into fifth place, after Brad Thorn’s side lost their third straight match to New Zealand opposition on Friday night.
It’s a remarkable feat given the Waratahs went winless last year and, with a relatively favourable final three rounds, they can sniff a top four position and a home quarter-final should they win at least two of those matches.
Should that occur, it would be one of the competition’s greatest turnarounds.
It was only on Wednesday Coleman said the match against the bottom placed side represented a harder prospect for the first-year coach than preparing them for last week’s remarkable victory over the Crusaders in Sydney.
Few scoffed at the remarks because Australian teams have made a habit of stumbling over themselves.
Twenty minutes in alarm bells were being heard across the Tasman after Moana Pasifika raced out of the blocks and scored two tries and a penalty inside 21 minutes.
But in another sign of the growing maturity of the Waratahs, they kept their heads and made the most of a dominant scrum.
After early momentum at the set-piece, Gordon perfectly summed up the moment, turning down a shot at goal to get on the scoreboard, and instead opted for a scrum.
The decision paid off, as Izaia Perese, who was the Waratahs’ best player, stormed onto a good ball and ran over former Wallaby Christian Leali’ifano to score in the 28th minute.
Ten minutes later and the Waratahs had their second, as hooker Dave Porecki, who re-signed throughout the week and is on track to make his Test debut in July against England, crossed to cut the margin to three points.
Leali’ifano’s second penalty shortly after half-time saw the cancer survivor and former Brumby become the first player of Pacific heritage to score 1,000 points in Super Rugby, as Moana extended their lead out to 20-14.
A careless lifting tackle from Tima Faina’anuku on the impressive Will Harris saw Moana reduced to 14 men.
The Waratahs made the most of the numerical advantage, scoring twice in six minutes as wingers Mark Nawaqanitawase and Dylan Pietsch crossed to see the visitors take the lead for the first time in the match.
Pietsch, who is growing with every match, looked like he had scored his second after some more Perese brilliance.
But the long-range try was called back after the TMO confirmed the touch judge’s initial, though inconspicuous, ruling that the Moana Pasifika player had stepped on the touchline before losing the ball.
Moana Pasifika never went away though and looked like punishing the Waratahs for failing to put them away.
For the second week though, the Waratahs’ defensive line held firm before the home side knocked on.
Despite another close shave, the Waratahs survived one scrum collapse before Australian referee Angus Gardner rewarded the visiting scrum a well-deserved scrum.
The moment proved decisive in more ways than one, as the Waratahs held on to seal a hugely important victory.
Coleman’s Tahs now host the Hurricanes, before rounding out the season with away matches against the Highlanders and Blues.