Anything other than a victory against the Force in Perth on Saturday could signal the end of the Waratahs' playoff aspirations, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.
The Waratahs have been abject this year. They have only managed to beat the Reds and have lost three consecutive home games, a streak that has brought captain Michael Hooper's form into question as well as Daryl Gibson's coaching credentials.
The Force may languish at the bottom of the Australasian group log, two places below the Waratahs, but they have plenty of reason to be optimistic coming into this fixture.
The Perth-based side have lost six of their seven matches so far this season, while the Waratahs have two wins from six games. The Force, though, have suffered defeats to playoff contenders in the Crusaders, Highlanders, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Brumbies and Rebels, and fought valiantly in those games.
By contrast, the Waratahs have shown no sign of sparking their season to life and another defeat against a supposedly weaker team will almost certainly end their slender playoff hopes.
The Force are on a three-match winning streak in this particular fixture, having beaten the Tahs in 2014 before completing the double against the defending champions in 2015.
While the Waratahs have scored twice as many tries as the Force (16 to eight), their frail defence and poor discipline could cost them in Perth. According to SARugbymag.co.za’s Opta-powered stats, the Tahs have conceded 70 penalties and five yellow cards in six games.
There are two changes to the Force lineup, with South African duo Francois van Wyk and Marcel Brache starting at loosehead prop and right wing respectively, while their countrymen Brynard Stander, Chris Heiberg and Ryan Louwrens are on the bench.
The Waratahs have been boosted by the return of Rob Horne on the left wing, Dave Dennis at No 4 lock and Paddy Ryan at loosehead prop. Hooker Tatafu-Polota-Nau is also back from injury and should come off the bench.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Waratahs 9, Force 5, Draw 1
In Perth: Waratahs 6, Force 2
STATS AND FACTS
– The Force have won their last three matches against the Waratahs, more wins than they accrued in the 12 prior iterations of this fixture.
– The Force haven't won a home match since round 13 in 2015, however that was the last time they faced the Waratahs.
– The Waratahs have won two of their last three matches away from home and have not trailed at the break in any of those matches.
– The Force have kicked eight penalty goals in the 20 minutes immediately after half-time, the most of any team.
– Matt Hodgson has averaged 15 tackles per game this season and Michael Hooper 13, the most and third most of any players in the competition.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Force||Peter Grant (37)||Ben Tapaui (2)||Dane Haylett-Petty (479)||Matt Hodgson (103)|
|Waratahs||Bernard Foley (22)||Israel Folau (4)||Israel Folau (526)||Michael Hooper (76)|
Force – 15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Marcel Brache, 13 Ben Tapuai, 12 Junior Rasolea, 11 Semisi Masirewa, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Steve Mafi, 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Heath Tessmann, 1 Francois van Wyk.
Subs: 16 Harry Scoble, 17 Chris Heiberg, 18 Jermaine Ainsley, 19 Rory Walton, 20 Brynard Stander, 21 Ryan Louwrens, 22 Kyle Godwin, 23 Albert Nikoro.
Waratahs – 15 Andrew Kellaway, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Israel Folau, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Jed Holloway, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Jack Dempsey, 5 Will Skelton, 4 David Dennis, 3 Tom Robertson, 2 Hugh Roach, 1 Paddy Ryan.
Subs: 16 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Dean Mumm, 20 Wycliff Palu, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 David Horwitz, 23 Matt Carraro.
Referee: Rohan Hoffman (Australia)
Assistant referees: Will Houston (Australia), Graham Cooper (Australia)
TMO: Peter Marshall (Australia)
Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images