Waratahs win but Rebels still celebrating

The NSW Waratahs recorded a thrilling 38-32 win over the Melbourne Rebels in Sydney but failed to cement their spot in the Super Rugby AU finals.

MATT TOOMUA.
MATT TOOMUA. Picture: Albert Perez/Getty Images

The NSW Waratahs were unable to disguise their despair even in victory after edging the Melbourne Rebels 38-32 in a nine-try Super Rugby AU thriller at Leichhardt Oval.

Despite the win, Melbourne finished the moral victors after Matt Toomua's 77th-minute penalty goal earned the Rebels a priceless bonus point that may well prove decisive in the race to the finals.

The Waratahs skipped four competition points clear of the Rebels on the table but, with a bye in next week's final round, now face an anxious wait to see if they qualify for the playoffs.

The scenario is simple: if Melbourne beat the winless Western Force by four points or more in Newcastle next Saturday, the Rebels will taste finals football for the first time and the Waratahs will miss out.

"For me, it feels a bit like a loss. I still haven't got my head around the fact that we actually won. Yeah, so mixed feelings," Waratahs coach Rob Penney said.

But the Baby Tahs only have themselves to blame for being in such a predicament.

Ill-discipline has cost them all season but the coach killer on Saturday night was young five-eighth Will Harrison not finding touch after a penalty with his side in control, leading 31-17 midway through the second half.

The Rebels wasted no time punishing the Waratahs for the cardinal sin, spreading the ball wide to Marika Koroibete for the 2019 John Eales Medallist to score in the left corner.

Koroibete's try cruelled NSW's hopes of banking a decisive bonus point that would have clinched a finals spot.

Not for the first time in 2020, the Tahs will rue blowing a big lead - and having lock Ned Hanigan yellow-carded in the shadows of halftime didn't help either.

Leading 14-3 at the time, after early tries to Jake Gordon and Jack Dempsey, the Tahs conceded tries either side of halftime while a man down to invite the Rebels back into the contest.

The Waratahs regained the ascendancy with further five-pointers to Harry Johnson-Holmes and Joey Walton, only for Harrison's blunder to again turn the tide.

But there was even another twist after Wallabies captain Michael Hooper's charge-down effort to set up a 76th-minute try for Harrison appeared to have denied the Rebels their all-important bonus point.

But Toomua, who also opened the scoring with a penalty, had the final say with another clean strike that could well have ended the Waratahs' season.

If it has, Hooper - the last survivor from NSW's 2014 title-winning team - has played his last game for the Waratahs until 2022 after revealing plans this week to head to Japan next year for a six-month sabbatical.