Israel Folau will pose the greatest threat to the Chiefs in New Plymouth on Saturday, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
The fullback has had an outstanding Vodacom Super Rugby season. He's made the most clean breaks and offloads, and is sixth on the list for metres gained (see Vodacom Rugby stats below), despite missing three matches because of injury. Folau scored his 10th try of the season against the Rebels last week to tie the Waratahs' season record, and you wouldn't bet against him breaking it against the Chiefs.
The champions have been inconsistent all year, losing four matches and drawing two (in South Africa) that they should have lost. Last week's crushing 45-8 defeat to the Hurricanes was the low point of their season, and they will be desperate to return to winning ways, especially if the Crusaders beat the Force on Friday to extend their lead at the top of the New Zealand conference.
In stark contrast, the Waratahs are full of confidence, having scored five or more tries in each of their last three matches. Those 15 log points have taken them to the top of the Australian conference, four points ahead of the Brumbies, who suffered two defeats in South Africa.
The Chiefs have made eight changes to their starting XV – including two positional – and five to their bench. Most notably, Aaron Cruden will wear the No 10 jersey for the first time in seven weeks, having returned to action from a broken thumb off the bench last week. The Waratahs have stuck with the team that beat the Rebels.
The Tahs will take heart from the fact that they beat the Chiefs 25-20 in Sydney last year and thrashed them 46-19 in Hamilton in 2010. The Chiefs, though, won their last home match against the Sydney side, 30-13 in 2012.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Chiefs 7, Waratahs 11
In Hamilton: Chiefs 5, Waratahs 4
FOLAU'S STATS THAT MATTER
10 – The number of tries he's scored this season (Rank 1)
19 – The number of clean breaks he's made (Rank 1)
32 – The number of offloads he's made (Rank 1)
802 – The number of metres he's gained (Rank 6)
Source: Vodacom Rugby Stats App
Chiefs – 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Dwayne Sweeney, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Andrew Horrell, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Matt Symons, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Subs: 16 Mahonri Schwalger, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Mike Fitzgerald, 20 Tanerau Latimer, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Bundee Aki.
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alofa Alofa, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Dave Dennis (c), 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Jacques Potgieter, 3 Paddy Ryan, 2 Tatafu Polota Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Subs: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Sekope Kepu , 19 Will Skelton, 20 Stephen Hoiles, 21 Brendan McKibbin, 22 Jono Lance, 23 Matt Carraro.
Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images