A rested, rejuvenated Waratahs team will take on the Highlanders in Saturday's Vodacom Super Rugby semi-final in Sydney, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
By finishing in the top two on the combined log, the Tahs were able to put their feet up while the play-off qualifiers were taking place. And they needed to, with seven of their players having started all 16 league games (Australian teams were not required to rest their Wallabies ahead of the World Cup).
One of those workhorses was 23-year-old Michael Hooper, who admitted this week that he felt more like a 40-year-old at the end of the league stage. While the openside flanker didn't play every minute of every match (like Israel Folau), the 1,268 minutes he did spend on the field took its toll.
Teams do tend to be a bit rusty following a bye week, but the Waratahs should come back feeling rejuvenated and ready to defend their title.
While the Tahs won't have Kurtley Beale for this semi-final – the Wallaby has failed to recover from a quadricep injury – they still have two potent attacking weapons among the backs in Folau and Taqele Naiyaravoro. And in Wycliff Palu and Jacques Potgieter, they have forwards who can match the physicality of a Highlanders' pack that got the better of the Chiefs last weekend.
The visitors will be full of confidence following their 24-14 win in the play-off qualifiers. Aaron Smith starred in that game, creating both of Waisake Naholo's tries, and will be a key man for his side again on Saturday. Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa could also make a big impact in a contest between two teams that like to attack (and the weather forecast is good).
However, if the game becomes tight, it could all come down to the goal-kickers. Bernard Foley (175) and Lima Sopoaga (173) are the top point-scorers this season, but have goal-kicking success rates of 69% and 71% respectively.
The Waratahs have made just one change to the starting XV that beat the Reds 31-5 two weeks ago, with the fit-again Rob Horne replacing Peter Betham on the left wing.
The Highlanders' solitary change is injury enforced, with James Lentjes replacing Dan Pryor on the openside flank.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Waratahs 13, Highlanders 6
In Sydney: Waratahs 7, Highlanders 2
STATS AND FACTS
– The home side on the day has won each of the last six instances of this fixture (three wins apiece).
– The Waratahs’ three victories in that sequence came by an aggregate margin of 72 points, while the Highlanders’ three wins came by a combined 24 points.
– The Highlanders have won six of their last eight matches and those six victories have been by a combined margin of 148 points.
– Similarly, the Waratahs have won four of their last five and their four wins came by a total 76 points.
– The Waratahs have an even record of three wins and three losses in semi-finals. They have averaged just 18 points and have never scored more than 28.
– The Highlanders have won one of four matches at this stage of the season but have not featured in the semi-finals since 2002.
– Only the Sharks (26.1) have averaged more kicks from hand than the Highlanders (24.8) this season. The Waratahs have produced the fewest, an average of 15.6. The Highlanders have also been the recipients of the fewest kicks from hand, an average of 18.4.
– The Highlanders have won the most turnovers this season (151), while the Tahs have won the fewest (88).
– Israel Folau (1,582) and Waisake Naholo (1,304) have gained more metres than any other player this year.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Waratahs||Bernard Foley (175)||Taqele Naiyaravoro (8)||Israel Folau (1,582)||Michael Hooper (178)|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (173)||Waisake Naholo (11)||Waisake Naholo (1,304)||Elliot Dixon (151)|
Waratahs – 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Matt Carraro, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Jacques Potgieter, 5 David Dennis (c), 4 Will Skelton, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Subs (one to be omitted): 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Mitchell Chapman, 20 Stephen Hoiles, 21 Patrick McCutcheon, 22 Brendan McKibbin, 23 Jono Lance, 24 Peter Betham.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edwards.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Latta, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Shaun Treeby.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Andrew Lees (Australia), James Leckie (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images