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Waratahs trounce Highlanders 44-16, clinch 1st place in Super Rugby

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SYDNEY - Fullback Israel Folau scored his 12th try of the season as the New South Wales Waratahs beat the Highlanders 44-16 Sunday to clinch first place and a home semifinal in Super Rugby with a round to spare.

Folau ran off an inside pass from centre Kurtley Beale to score in the 42nd minute, boosting the Waratahs' confidence after they had taken a brittle 11-9 lead to halftime.

Winger Rob Horne, prop Sekope Kepu, scrumhalf Nick Phipps, lock Jacques Potgeiter and replacement Taqele Naiyaravoro also scored tries as the Waratahs claimed a bonus point, making their place atop the table unassailable with a franchise-record sixth-straight win.

The win gives the Waratahs a break in the first round of the playoffs, carrying them directly to the semifinals, where they will host the lowest-ranked winner in week two of the playoffs.

The Waratahs were outstanding at set pieces and Phipps was the clever architect of much of their attacking play, directing the attack where the defence was weakest. Flyhalf Bernard Foley kicked 14 points — four conversions and two penalties — to surpass Peter Hewat's season record for the Waratahs of 184 points in 2006.

But the Waratahs' win was once again founded on a team performance and the seamless interaction of backs — notably the inside trio of Phipps, Foley and Kurtley Beale — and forwards, among whom Kepu, Potgeiter and Wycliff Palu were outstanding.

"We said before the game we wanted it to be hard to choose a man of the match," captain Michael Hooper said. "And there were guys putting their hands up at this end of the season which is vital.

"Everyone needs to be doing their job well and we did that tonight, six tries to one."

Hooper said the Waratahs had been so closely concentrating on each match, they weren't aware until Saturday morning that they could clinch first place with a win. They did so by scoring their most-ever points in a match against the Highlanders, beating the 41 they posted in 2005.

"We just woke up this morning and found that out," Hooper said. "It's always been a week-to-week proposition for us this year.

"It's been such a tough competition. The Queensland Reds will be solid next week and we just have to keep momentum going into the finals."

The Waratahs' first try — their only try of the first half — was also their best, sprawling more than 90 metres. Phipps set the move in motion, seeing an attacking chance close to his goalline and choosing to attack the thinnest part of the Highlanders' line.

Many players handled before Hooper provided the last pass for winger Horne. The Highlanders had little ball but managed to stay in touch at halftime with three Lima Sopoaga penalties before the floodgates opened in the second half.

The Waratahs ran in five tries after halftime as Foley took the ball to the gain line and found willing runners, both backs and forwards.

The Highlanders will go into next weekend's last regular season round still in fourth place but now needing to beat the Crusaders to firm their chances of reaching the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.

"If we want to be serious contenders in the competition our defence is going to have to be a lot better than it was tonight," Highlanders captain Nasi Manu said.

____

New South Wales 44 (Rob Horne, Israel Folau, Sekope Kepu, Nick Phipps, Jacques Potgeiter, Taqele Naiyaravoro tries; Bernard Foley 4 conversions, 2 penalties), Highlanders 16 (Phil Burleigh try; Lima Sopoaga 3 penalties; Hayden Parker conversion). HT: 11-9.

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