The Waratahs will all but secure top spot on the combined log with victory over the Highlanders in Sydney on Sunday, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
The Tahs just seem to be getting better with every passing week. One could be forgiven in thinking that after a tough Test window a number of their Wallabies starters would struggle to get up for the game against the Brumbies, but that couldn't have been further from the truth. The Tahs absolutely battered the Brumbies' defensive line, and at the forefront of the attack was Wycliff Palu. He carried the ball a staggering 19 times and ran over 100m in another thunderous 80 minutes from the big man. A week earlier he was named the Man of the Match in the Wallabies' victory over France and his form heading into the play-offs should make Waratahs coach Michael Cheika a very happy man.
With Dave Dennis ruled out for the rest of the year, Palu can expect an even larger workload this weekend against the Highlanders but he, like the Waratahs, has shown no signs of slowing down.
This weekend the Highlanders are tasked with stopping the sky-blue juggernaut at a venue they haven't won at since 2007. The Tahs are unbeaten on their own turf this season, but the Highlanders have fared well on the road, boasting away wins against the Sharks, Reds and Hurricanes.
The Waratahs have had to slightly shuffle their pack, following the injury to skipper Dave Dennis. Stephen Hoiles will prove a more than able deputy, while Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper takes over the captaincy duties. Will Skelton will once again be used as an impact player from the bench.
Meanwhile, Highlanders coach Jamie Josephs has opted for the same team that defeated the Chiefs in Dunedin last weekend.
A win for the Highlanders will set up a winner-takes-all clash with the Crusaders in Christchurch next weekend, while a home win will be enough to secure a top-two finish and a home semi-final.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Waratahs 12, Highlanders 5
In Sydney: Waratahs 6, Highlanders 2
PALU'S STATS THAT MATTER
19 – The number of carries he made during round 17 (Rank 1)
3 – The number of offloads he made during round 17 (Rank 6)
4 – The number of defenders he beat during round 17 (Rank 14)
Source: Vodacom Rugby Stats App
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 (c), 6 Stephen Hoiles, 5 Kane Dougles, 4 Jacques Potgieter, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Subs: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Mitch Chapman, 21 Pat McCutcheon, 22 Brendan McKibbin, 23 Jono Lance, 24 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 25 Cam Crawford (two to be omitted).
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Chris King, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Lee Allan, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Photo: Stefan Postles/Getty Images