Michael Hooper's battle with Pat Lam will prove pivotal in deciding who comes out on top when the Waratahs face the Hurricanes in Sydney on Saturday.
Hooper has been a nuisance at the breakdown all season for the Waratahs, winning penalties and turning over ball in some eye-catching performances. His low centre of gravity and technical prowess has drawn comparisons with George Smith, as he continues to stake his claim for a starting role in the Australian team in David Pocock's absence.
He could do very little last season, though, as the Canes ran in four tries in a 41-29 win, a match that was more one-sided than the scoreboard suggests. The Hurricanes were also victorious the last time these two met in Sydney, but a run of five consecutive Waratahs victories prior to that suggests that this fixture hasn't always been kind to them.
Waratahs coach Michael Cheika, who dodged a lengthy ban this week, has made four changes to his starting line-up. Wycliff Palu returns to add some experience to the forwards, with a number of positional changes coming as a result. Paddy Ryan will start at loosehead prop in place of Sekope Kepu, while Matt Carraro will get a start on the right wing.
The only change to the Hurricanes line-up comes at reserve scrumhalf, where Billy Guyton replaces Chris Smylie on the bench.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Waratahs 8, Hurricanes 11
In Sydney: Waratahs 6, Hurricanes 3
HOOPER'S STATS THAT MATTER
99 – Number of tackles made this season (Rank 4)
6 – Number of turnovers won this season (Rank 6)
73 – Number of carries made this season (Rank 24)
Source: Vodacom Stats App
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Matt Carraro, 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 Jacques Potgieter, 4 Kane Douglas, 3 Paddy Ryan, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Subs: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Sekope Kepu, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Stephen Hoiles/Pat McCutcheon, 21 Brendan McKibbin, 22 Jono Lance, 23 Alofa Alofa/Cam Crawford.
Hurricanes – 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Alapati Leiua, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Subs: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Reggie Goodes, 19 Blade Thomson, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Tim Bateman, 23 Matt Proctor.
Photo: Gallo Images