The NSW Waratahs have claimed their first New Zealand scalp of the 2023 season to scramble back into the Super Rugby Pacific's top eight.

Ben Donaldson's last-minute conversion of a desperate Mahe Vailanu try earned the Waratahs a heart-stopping 21-20 win over the Highlanders at Allianz Stadium on Friday night. 

The thrilling victory thrust Darren Coleman's side from 10th to sixth on the ladder.

Coleman had been banking on the return of a raft of Wallabies to kickstart a run to the quarter-finals after last week's 55-21 drubbing at the hands of the Blues in Auckland.

And the cavalry delivered, with champion flanker Michael Hooper, barnstorming No.8 Langi Gleeson and hooker Dave Porecki all putting in big performances upon their return to the starting XV.

Langi broke the Highlanders' defence open in the first minute of the game, while man-of-the-match Hooper was typically in the thick of everything all night and even conjured a 50-22 kick that led to a vital try on the stroke of halftime to Lalakai Foketi.

That strike gave the Tahs a 14-6 buffer at the break after two Sam Gilbert penalty goals for the Highlanders all but cancelled out Izaia Perese's powerhouse try in the 17th minute.

Whistle-happy referee Damon Murphy made for a dour contest but the Waratahs, seemingly locked in a six-way battle for the last three finals spots, will take wins however they come at this stage of the season. 


Murphy dished out 20 penalties and back-to-back infringements from the Waratahs allowed Highlanders No.8 Hugh Renton to score from a driving maul to drag the visitors to within a point of the lead.

They hit the front for the first time five minutes later when Aaron Smith darted over.

In a double whammy, Foketi was sin-binned immediately after the Highlanders grabbed a 20-14 lead for a tip tackle in the lead-up to Smith's try.

Suddenly the Waratahs needed to find something - and they did.

But they left it late.

With Foketi back on and Highlanders forward Pari Pari Parkinson yellow-carded it was the Waratahs who finished the game with a one-man advantage.

The Highlanders desperately held the Tahs at bay for several minutes before replacement hooker Vailanu finally found his way over and Ben Donaldson coolly converted to snatch the lead back with 32 seconds left on the clock.

WARATAHS 21 (TRIES: Perese, Foketi, Vaianu)

HIGHLANDERS 20 (TRIES: Renton, Smith)

WARATAHS (1-15): Te Tera Faulkner, Dave Porecki, Harry Johnson-Holmes, Jed Holloway, Hugh Sinclair, Taleni Seu, Michael Hooper, Langi Gleeson, Jake Gordon (c), Ben Donaldson, Dylan Pietsch, Lalakai Foketi, Izaia Perese, Mark Nawaqanitawase, Max Jorgensen

RESERVES: Mahe Vailanu, Nephi Leatigaga, Daniel Botha, Will Harris, Charlie Gamble, Harrison Goddard, Joey Walton, Mosese Tuipulotu

HIGHLANDERS (1-15): Ethan de Groot, Andrew Makalio, Jermaine Ainsley, Fabian Holland, Will Tucker, Shannon Frizell, Sean Withy, Hugh Renton, Aaron Smith (c), Mitch Hunt, Scott Gregory, Sam Gilbert, Fetuli Paea, Jonah Lowe, Connor Garden-Bachop

RESERVES: Rhys Marshall, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Saula Ma'u, Pari Pari Parkinson, Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, Folau Fakatava, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Jona Nareki

Referee: Damon Murphy

Assistant Referees: Jordan Way, Matt Kellahan