Ignoring a horror record in Dunedin which dates back 14 years and chasing their first win in New Zealand since 2015, the Waratahs showed they are a different beast in 2022 to book a crucial win on Sunday.

The victory took the Waratahs (8-5) ahead of the Queensland Reds and into sixth on the ladder.

They face a clash with the ladder-leading Blues back in Sydney on Saturday as the last round determines the top eight finals.

The Highlanders couldn't have started better with lock Josh Dickson barging across the line in the third minute after an early turnover.

NSW hit back eight minutes later when No.8 Will Harris showed some deft footwork to plant the ball between the sticks for a 7-7 scoreline.

The game took a turn in the 29th minute when Highlanders five-eighth Sam Gilbert was sent off for an ugly lifting tackle in which Waratahs flanker Michael Hooper was up-ended.

The Wallabies captain was making his return to play from concussion but escaped unscathed.

The visitors immediately used their numerical advantage with a long, floating pass finding winger Mark Nawaqanitawase to score.

Then Hooper showed his pace to dart from the back of a ruck, running 20 metres to score and give his team a commanding 19-7 halftime lead.

The Waratahs lost prop Paddy Ryan to a yellow card early in the second half for a head knock as he attempted to clean out.

With Waratahs fullback Ben Donaldson spilling an Aaron Smith kick, the Highlanders pounced on the loose ball and used the extra space to put centre Scott Gregory over in the corner.

After a previous penalty strike the margin was just four points with the home side on the march.

But the Waratahs refused to wilt under pressure and five-eighth Tane Edmed kept the scoreboard ticking over with two penalties.

Playing his first game since his return from Japan, forward Ned Hanigan shrugged off the defence and then off-loaded to Edmed for the Waratahs' fourth try.

NSW attempted to chase another try after regulation time to secure a bonus point, but turned the ball over for Liam Coombes-Fabling to have the final say for the Highlanders. 

Highlanders 20 (Tries: Josh Dickson, Scott Gregory, Liam Coombes-Fabling; Con: Sam Gilbert; Pen: Marty Banks). Waratahs 32 (Tries: Will Harris, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Michael Hooper, Tane Edmed; Con: Edmed 3; Pen: Edmed 2) HT: 7-19 

Highlanders: 1-Daniel Lienert-Brown, 2-Liam Coltman, 3- Jermaine Ainsley, 4-Sam Caird, 5-Josh Dickson, 6-James Lentjes, 7-Billy Harmon, 8-Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, 9-Aaron Smith, 10-Sam Gilbert, 11-Scott Gregory, 12-Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 13-Josh Timu, 14-Denny Solomona, 15-Connor Garden-Bachop 

Reserves: 16- Andrew Makalio, 17-Luca Inch, 18-Saula Ma'u, 19-Max Hicks, 20-Hugh Renton, 21-Folau Fakatava, 22-Marty Banks, 23-Fetuli Paea

Waratahs: 1-Te Tera Faulkner, 2-Dave Porecki, 3-Paddy Ryan, 4-Geoff Cridge, 5-Hugh Sinclair, 6-Langi Gleeson, 7-Michael Hooper, 8-Will Harris, 9-Jake Gordon, 10-Tane Edmed, 11-Dylan Pietsch, 12-Lalakai Foketi, 13-Alex Newsome, 14-Mark Nawaqanitawase, 15-Ben Donaldson

Reserves: 16-Mahe Vailanu, 17-Angus Bell, 18-Ruan Smith, 19-Jeremy Williams, 20-Ned Hanigan, 21-Charlie Gamble, 22-Jack Grant, 23-Jamie Roberts