The Waratahs' pursuit of a Super Rugby Pacific home quarterfinal hit a second-half roadblock on Saturday night, as they became the second Australian team to be run down by the Hurricanes this season.
Up 15-0 at the break -- having completely dominated the Kiwis across the first 40 -- NSW were stuck in the sheds upon the resumption, allowing the visitors to score before the clock had hit two minutes.
And it was basically all downhill from there as the Hurricanes ran in two more tries, while the Tahs lost Izaia Perese to a knee injury and then saw replacement prop Paddy Ryan -- who had only joined the team midweek -- red-carded for a high tackle inside the final five minutes.
Put simply, the second half probably could not have gone any worse for the Waratahs. In the end the Hurricanes finished over the top of the hosts to win 22-18, a result that NSW coach Darren Coleman declared was a "reality check" for his team.
"A bit disappointing, disheartening, when they went up a notch we just couldn't go with them," Coleman said. "When we were fresh and momentum was with us we looked good; whether it's sort of cream rises eventually or what not, but the Kiwis talk about being fitter than us and playing longer, and they do.
"Obviously we just hung on against the Crusaders last time, but we couldn't hang on this time. So it's a good little reality check of where we are in comparison to them, so I'll take a lot of that [on me] -- obviously we're just not at their level of condition to be able to stay in those fights right to the end."
To their credit, the Hurricanes were able to limit the scoreboard damage in a first half when they were largely poor and found themselves camped inside their own half for extended periods. Their scrum was also awful, props Xavier Numia and Tyrel Lomax lucky to avoid further sanction after a succession of penalties against them.
The duo was eventually hooked after 33 minutes, and the Hurricanes scrum was largely sound thereafter.
But it was their strike immediately after halftime through Tevita Mafileo that really shifted the momentum of the match, the visitors marching through the middle of the Waratahs' defence as scrum-half Jamie Booth was presented with excellent front-foot ball.
Hurricanes skipper Ardie Savea was prominent as usual, the All Blacks star throwing the final pass for Bailyn Sullivan's try which drew the Kiwis level, before scoring himself to give his side the lead. Savea also led all forwards for metres run (38), off nine carries, in a display that would have put a smile on the face of his Test coach Ian Foster.
While glowing in praise for his skipper, Hurricanes coach Jason Holland was equally proud of the performance of his entire pack in a second half when they were able to shift the momentum of the match completely and keep their own hopes of a home quarterfinal alive.
"He was awesome, he carried over the gainline and obviously gave us a lot of go-forward, and we create a lot after Ards [Savea] does something obviously," Holland said. "But he's able to have those magic moments because there's a lot of graft going on around him with the other loosies and the forwards as well.
"Yep, he's putting out some awesome performances but I tend to want to look past that and see why he got those opportunities."
Ryan's dismissal, meanwhile, was the final blow in a second-half the Waratahs will regret, despite skipper Jake Gordon declaring it another "step in the right direction" in his post-game interview with Stan Sport. Gordon repeated that assessment in the post-match press conference, choosing to look on the bright side after the Waratahs shipped 68 points to the Hurricanes in the corresponding game last year.
It's true the Waratahs had some excellent patches, particularly in the first half when NSW rode a dominant scrum that probably deserved more reward than it got.
No. 8 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco eventually peeled off the back of the set-piece to score, after winger Dylan Pietsch was denied by the TMO when Gordon had kicked the ball back into the scrum.
Pietsch was at it again later in the half, his brilliant feet finishing off a searching run downfield that had begun with a beautiful cut-out pass from Jed Holloway. Unfortunately, it again amounted to nothing and the Waratahs early dominance failed to create scoreboard pressure.
But at last they got the reward their continuity and endeavour deserved as another forward, this time Warren-Vosayaco, showed his passing skill to put Charlie Gamble into space, who then had Perese wrapping around him.
Into the backfield, Perese charged back infield between the two covering Hurricanes defenders, before he then found Pietsch with a sensational flick pass offload on the inside from which the winger ran away to score.
That was just one of a number of powerful Perese surges and similarly robust tackles, the kind of which will have had Wallabies coach Dave Rennie smiling from ear to ear, at least until Perese was injured chasing his own kick through on 68 minutes.
When the Waratahs had their chances late, it was exactly Perese's ball-carrying they were craving.
After he suffered a shoulder injury in the final Trans-Tasman game of 2021, which saw him miss the chance to face France and then the Rugby Championship, both the Waratahs and Wallabies will be sweating on the reports of Sunday's scans, although Coleman confirmed his barnstorming midfielder had indeed suffered a medial ligament injury.
"He does things that other people can't do, doesn't he," Coleman said of Perese. "He's a quality, powerful player when he wants to be, when he's on."
With the likelihood of a home quarterfinal now gone, Coleman said he would likely look to rotate some troops as there wasn't much difference between "fifth and eighth".
Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper is rated a good chance to return next week and NSW will certainly be happy to have him back.
While there might not be much difference in finishing between fifth and eighth, as Coleman says, no team wants to head into the finals riding three straight defeats.