NSW Waratahs captain Bernard Foley has spearheaded a remarkable comeback as his side overturned a 17-point halftime deficit and beat the Highlanders 30-23 in their Super Rugby quarter-final.
The Tahs, who finished Saturday night's game at Allianz Stadium with 14 men, led 6-3 early on but conceded 20 unanswered points to trail 23-6 at the break.
But they piled on three tries and 21 points after Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo was sent to the bin and scored all 24 points after the break.
Their backline big guns fired, with five-eighth Foley scoring two tries and fullback Israel Folau one, and centre Kurtley Beale setting up two and Folau the other.
A penalty to Foley, who scored a personal-best Super Rugby 25 points, expanded the home team's lead to seven with 10 minutes to go.
The Tahs then had to play the last six minutes with 14 men after prop Paddy Ryan was sin-binned when he was caught offside after Highlanders forward Shannon Frizell grounded the ball just short of the line.
They hung on with some desperate defence to clinch a semi-final against either the Lions or Jaguares.
For the second time in Sydney this season, the Waratahs ruthlessly exploited the Highlanders when the New Zealand team were down on numbers.
Naholo was binned after two high tackles in a few seconds on Tahs prop Sekope Kepu as he tried to stop a barnstorming run from the Wallabies front-rower.
It was a different story in the first half when everything seemed to be going wrong for the Tahs after a promising start.
Discipline was an issue in the first half as they gave away seven penalties, four more than the Highlanders and on three occasions were pinged for not releasing.
Poor defensive reads and line speed and the failure to sustain pressure when in possession hurt NSW.
Naholo went over for the first try after centre Curtis Rona rushed out of the line.
Centre Rob Thompson sliced through a hole for the visitors second try.
Even when they had a lineout close to the Highlanders' line late in the half, NSW butchered the chance with a crooked throw.
But with Foley leading from the front and Beale at his brilliant best, setting up tried for his skipper and Folau, NSW made their numerical superiority count then held on when they were outnumbered.
Waratahs No.8 Michael Wells was forced off the ground in the 32nd minute after he got his head in the wrong position while trying to execute a tackle.
Relive 1 NEWS NOW's live updates of tonight's Super Rugby quarter-final between the Waratahs and Highlanders at Allianz Stadium in Sydney.
FT: WAR 30-23 HIG
The Highlanders season is over after the Waratahs score 24 unanswered points in the second half. What a game. Highlanders dominated the first half but when the Waratahs got their chance with Naholo in the bin, they pounced and left the Highlanders speechless. No doubt Naholo will feel the guilt for this loss but when his team had a chance late, his teammates didn't deliver either. That one is going to hurt for a long time. That's all from us folks. Po marie.
79min: WAR 30-23 HIG
ANOTHER ERROR! Aaron Smith fires a ball to Ben Smith on the right wing and Smith drops it cold. That may do it. Waratahs scrum on halfway.
78min: WAR 30-23 HIG
Foley clears. Highlanders lineout 30m out.
77min: WAR 30-23 HIG
Sopoaga attacks the line off the scrum but he goes to ground. Aaron Smith comes through looking to score but he knocks it on 2m short! What a moment in the game. Waratahs scrum 5m from their line.
75min: WAR 30-23 HIG
Beale goes for an intercept and he's got it in his hands but as he goes to ground he knocks it on. Another Highlanders scrum. Middle of the field 10m out. Stuff Hollywood stories are made of.
73min: WAR 30-23 HIG
WAR YELLOW! MASSIVE MOMENT! The TMO replays have showed the Waratahs playing at the ball in an offside position illegally close to the line so it's a yellow card. Highlanders take a 5m scrum with the penalty.
73min: WAR 30-23 HIG
HIG NO TRY! Highlanders are 5m out after 12 phases of play before the ball comes to Frizell and he smashes at the line. It's unclear if he got there. Looks like he's short. TMO confirms it.
70min: WAR 30-23 HIG
WAR THREE! Waratahs get into the Highlanders 22m through the middle of the field and nine phases of play before an offside penalty lets them push the lead to seven. It's right in front, 18m out. Foley gets it with ease.
65min: WAR 27-23 HIG
Highlanders work the ball for 20 phases inside the Waratahs 22m but they won't budge. And finally there's a penalty as the Highlanders get caught not releasing! Waratahs are a different team this second half. Clearing kick gives the Waratahs a lineout near halfway.
62min: WAR 27-23 HIG
WAR TRY! The Waratahs are back in front after another linebreak by Folau. He steps off the left to get into the backfield and links with Phipps on the Highlanders' 22m. Phipps finds support in Foley and the Tahs first-five gets his second. What a turn of events.
59min: WAR 20-23 HIG
Highlanders have the ball on halfway and use the forwards to chew up time on Naholo's sin bin. But Lentjes gets too close to the sideline and he's bundled into touch. Waratahs lineout just inside their half.
57min: WAR 20-23 HIG
WAR TRY! The Tahs are back and who else but Beale and Folau to get them there. Beale makes a linebreak on halfway and gets into the depleted backfield with Folau in support. He draws in Li and passes to the fullback who scores in the left corner.
54min: WAR 13-23 HIG
WAR TRY! Waratahs are in with Foley under the posts. Used quick ball and Beale pops a short ball inside to his first five he dives in to score.
51min: WAR 6-23 HIG
HIG YELLOW! Naholo is sent to the bin after the Waratahs make a clean break down the right wing with an intercept on their tryline. Waratahs get into the Highlanders' 22m and Naholo flies in with a high hit. No doubt he has to go. Waratahs kick for touch with the penalty and get a 5m lineout. Big 10 minutes coming up.
49min: WAR 6-23 HIG
Waratahs overthrow the lineout and the Highlanders turn it into territory with an immediate kick into the Waratahs' 22m. Waratahs get back to recover but the clearing box kick goes straight into the back of one of the forwards standing off the ruck. That's an accidental offside, meaning it's a Highlanders scrum. It'll be 10m from the Waratahs' line.
46min: WAR 6-23 HIG
Highlanders cough up the ball with a knock on and make matters worse with Lienert-Brown getting penalised for tackling Beale without the ball. Waratahs kick for touch and get a lineout 40m from the Highlanders' line.
43min: WAR 6-23 HIG
Highlanders get a penalty after a cheap, late hit from Hanigan on Sopoaga during a clearance kick. Sopoaga gets back up and he looks okay but the Highlanders have turned a clearing kick inside their 22m to a lineout just inside the Waratahs half as a result. Worth it, Hanigan?
40min: WAR 6-23 HIG
Sopoaga gets things underway again.
HT: WAR 6-23 HIG
First half in the books and to put it simply, the Highlanders have outplayed the Waratahs so far. Dominanted the rucks, executed with their set piece and constantly applying pressure to the Waratahs' offence. Even Folau is making uncharacteristic errors. It's a great start but they're not home yet. Stick around, we'll have the second half soon to see if the Highlanders can finish it off.
38min: WAR 6-23 HIG
He's thrown some stunners tonight but this latest pass from Sopoaga is a shocker. Goes miles forward and flies into touch. Waratahs opt for the scrum instead of the lineout though - its 30m from the Highlanders' line.
36min: WAR 6-23 HIG
Pressure strikes again. The Waratahs' throw at the lineout isn't straight so it's a Highlanders' scrum on their 5m.
35min: WAR 6-23 HIG
Waratahs get a big chance to reply before the half after they get an intercept on halfway and immediately kick ahead. Naholo gets back to recover it but he's swamped by Waratahs and is penalised for not releasing. Tahs know they're too far behind to take three here and kick for touch. 5m lineout coming up.
34min: WAR 6-23 HIG
HIG THREE! The Highlanders' scrum puts on a massive shove and the Waratahs front row comes up under the pressure. Sopoaga steps forward for the penalty and takes thre free points on offer from 15m out in front.
32min: WAR 6-20 HIG
There's a stoppage in play for Michael Wells who stayed down after a heavy collision. It's been a good three minutes and he hasn't moved at all. Not looking good for the Waratahs loosie. He finally gets to his fet and walks off on his own but his night looks over. Highlanders with a scrum 15m from the line to restart things.
31min: WAR 6-20 HIG
Waratahs look for an intercept on another big pass to Naholo but it's a knock on. Highlanders scrum 15m from the Waratahs' line.
29min: WAR 6-20 HIG
Highlanders have another attacking lineout on the Waratahs 22m after the Tahs' pack is penalised for collapsing a maul. Sopoaga finds touch with the penalty.
27min: WAR 6-20 HIG
Highlanders attack down the right wing after a skip pass from Sopoaga to Naholo puts the big winger in space. He's taken down on the Waratahs' 22m. Fired back to Sopoaga who floats a cross kick to the left wing but there's no one from either team there. Bounces into touch for Waratahs lineout 15m from their line.
25min: WAR 6-20 HIG
HIG TRY! Too easy. Rob Thompson slices through the middle on the 22m with a right step and he's in under the posts. Clean play from the Highlanders at the moment and they're well and truly winning in all areas of the park so far.
22min: WAR 6-13 HIG
It's happened again! A chaotic phase of play filled with bouncing passes from both sides eventually sees the Waratahs counter-attack and make their way into the Highlanders 22m. But once again, a runner gets isolated and the Highlanders strike over the top. The ball isn't released and it's another penalty at the breakdown. The Waratahs are struggling massively in the ruck at the moment. Sopoaga kicks for touch with the penalty and gives the Highlanders a lineout 10m from halfway in their half.
19min: WAR 6-13 HIG
HIG THREE! Waratahs dive on a loose pass to get the ball back but it turns into a disaster as they give up yet another penalty. This time it's Folau getting isolated in the middle of the field and Coltman is over the top. Folau doesn't release and the whistle blows. Sopoaga from 25m out in front says thank you very much.
16min: WAR 6-10 HIG
Waratahs cough up another penalty at the ruck - this time for not releasing the ball. Sopoaga seeks touch and finds it. Highlanders lineout 40m from the Waratahs line.
14min: WAR 6-10 HIG
Miscommunication leads to a poor throw and it's ruled not straight. Waratahs packing a scrum down just inside their half.
13min: WAR 6-10 HIG
Highlanders back in attacking territory after the Waratahs are penalised for not rolling away after kickoff. Sopoaga finds touch and it's a lineout just inside the Waratahs half.
12min: WAR 6-10 HIG
HIG TRY! Naholo dives into the corner and the Highlanders are back in front. Visitors get a lineout on halfway and they come off the top and hit the midfield. It's recycled quickly to the right to Sopoaga and he sells a beautiful dummy to slice into the backfield. He sees Naholo on the right wing unmarked and fires it to him. Naholo goes the final 20m to score. Slick from the southerners.
9min: WAR 6-3 HIG
WAR THREE! Highlanders immediately fall onto the backfoot again as their penalised in the first ruck after the kickoff for not releasing. Waratahs arrived with numbers after kickoff and forced the issue. Smart play. Foley slots it from 25m out to the right.
7min: WAR 3-3 HIG
HIG THREE! Highlanders respond straight away after Waratahs are penalised for not rolling away seven phases into the Highlanders' attack. It's 40m out in front and Sopoaga nails it. All tied up.
4min: WAR 3-0 HIG
WAR THREE! Lentjes is penalised for being offside and it's right in front from around 20m out. Foley steps forward to give the homeside a lead and does so with ease.
2min: WAR 0-0 HIG
Highlanders try a switch move from the scrum but the final pass to the right wing sails into touch. Waratahs take it quickly and Folau sees space in the backfield and kicks. Sopoaga races back to get to the bouncing ball and gets to it before clearing. Waratahs lineout 30m out.
Foley gets things underway and we're off in Sydney! And it's a shocker! Way too short so we come back to halfway for a Highlanders scrum.
Taqele Naiyaravoro of the Waratahs passes the ball to Michael Hooper during the round 14 Super Rugby match between the Waratahs and the Highlanders at Allianz Stadium
Keeping a full contingent on the park will be the first step for the Highlanders if they are to wipe the painful memories of their last Super Rugby trip to Sydney.
Halting big NSW Waratahs ball runners is seen as another fundamental in Saturday's quarter-final.
The Dunedin-based side were humbled 41-12 in round 14 two months ago, a momentous result which ended a 40-match winless streak for Australian franchises against Kiwi teams.
It is best remembered for the red card shown to Highlanders winger Tavita Nabura in the opening quarter.
His kung fu-style kick to the face of opposite Cam Clarke when claiming a high ball handed the Waratahs a virtual free pass, exacerbated when halfback Aaron Smith was shown a yellow card soon afterwards.
However, Highlanders assistant coach Clarke Dermody said the danger signs had become obvious prior to their numerical disadvantage.
"We played a lot of that game down on men, which is not ideal, but even in that first 15 minutes the Waratahs were playing awesome," Dermody told AAP.
"They were creating heaps of momentum with their big runners so I guess that's probably the bit of that game which we've been reviewing - how to stop that.
"I'm predicting they'll probably do that again."
Big outside backs Taqele Naiyaravoro and Israel Folau both bagged doubles while Curtis Rona also ran amok, ending the Waratahs' four-match losing trot to the Highlanders.
The Kiwis are close to full strength and refreshed after welcoming back two influential All Blacks, Ben Smith and Aaron Smith.
There are six starting changes from the makeshift side which finished the regular season with a 43-37 home win over the Melbourne Rebels.
Key figures who have endured a heavy workload were rested to prepare them for the Australian conference champions.
Veteran fullback and co-captain Ben Smith is a leading light in their counter- attacking style while halfback Aaron Smith dictates the speed of their game and is a lethal tactical kicker.
Also back is outside centre Rob Thompson, one of their big improvers this season, along with regular first-choice forwards Luke Whitelock, Tom Franklin and Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Dermody believes his returning players have benefited from a break.
"You can tell straight away. Monday morning when those boys came back in they had a spring in their step and were ready to go," he said.
"Partly because it's knockout rugby but partly because they had that whole week off."
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley (c), 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Will Miller, 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Tom Robertson