Preview: Waratahs v Highlanders

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Sunday, July 6, 2014    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Sunday, July 6, 2014, 18:05pm (NZT)

H2H: Played 17, Waratahs 12, Highlanders 5

Last time: Waratahs 17-18 Highlanders (March 10, 2012)

Squad update: The only change for the Waratahs sees Stephen Hoiles come into the starting team to replace skipper Dave Dennis. While the presence of the enforcer and leader will be missed, this is a team in form that with little sympathy ended the hopes of the Brumbies last weekend.

There are more Wallabies in the Waratahs team than any other in Super Rugby, not merely boasting key players like Michael Hooper and Israel Folau, but Bernard Foley and Nick Phipps, who have jumped up the national pecking order this year.

Highlanders’ coach Jamie Joseph will be happy that he has a near fully fit squad to choose from, a change from usual circumstances at this time of the year for the group. The Waratahs have pinpointed Malakai Fekitoa as a danger, while the clash between Folau and Ben Smith should be quite the contest. But if the visitors are to be successful, their pack of workmen will need to front up against a star studded unit.

Form: Win this and for the first time in Super Rugby history the Waratahs will claim the minor premiership, a significant achievement when it comes to predicting who will win the championship. They have won their last five matches scoring 24 tries over that period, and while the side’s physical presence has been notable, under Michael Cheika this Waratahs team is quite comfortably at scoring tries.

The Highlanders halted a two game losing streak with a precious victory against the Chiefs last weekend, but have history against them here as they have only won eight times in Australia, and only once in the last seven years (in Melbourne). To top this the Waratahs are undefeated in 2014 at home, so the Southerners will have plenty of work to do if they are to remain in the final’s hunt.

Key players: The Highlanders are a no-nonsense team that has been too well drilled for many other rivals this year, and the direction of Foley and second five-eighth Kurtley Beale will be principal for a side that has looked assured over recent weeks.

Lima Sopoaga might not get some of the plaudits that his All Blacks counterparts receive in the back division, but his control has been a big part of a Highlanders game that has looked the goods, but will be tested against one of the better Waratahs teams ever seen.

Key matchup: It is hard to go part the glamour clash between Israel and Ben, two players that would be rated by most as World XV class, but who is the classier might have a factor in picking a winner in the final match of the penultimate round.

Folau, Super Rugby’s leading try scorer, has been the smiling assassin of a Waratahs team clearly enjoying their run and ‘transformation’, and as a consequence Australian Rugby as a whole have been using their poster boy fullback as their marketing face.

Smith was perhaps the best All Black on display during June, and his form effortlessly transcends between international and Super Rugby. Offering a more all-purpose game than his flashy attacking opposite, the two figures will likely clash in the last line more than once this afternoon.

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 (capt), 6 Stephen Hoiles, 5 Kane Dougles, 4 Jacques Potgieter, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.

Replacements: 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, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Kane Hames.

Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Chris King, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Lee Allan, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh.