A chance to top the Australian Conference is in sight for the Waratahs on Sunday when the face overall leaders the Crusaders on Sunday.
Head coach Daryl Gibson will be hoping that last season’s impressive comeback away to the Rebels can be a catalyst for greater things this season after an unconvincing start.
Down 20-0 at the break the Waratahs’ leaders finally showed up, and inspired by the work of Michael Hooper and Bernard Foley what would have been a catastrophic defeat for Gibson, whose future has already been questioned this year, turned into a morale-boosting victory on the road.
Even at home, the Crusaders offer a significant step up in challenge. It feels like a lifetime since that jaw-dropping Super Rugby final between these two sides at the same venue, clinched by a swing of Foley’s trusty boot.
To hand the Crusaders a first defeat of the year you sense that the Waratahs desperately needed Foley to be available. Instead rookie fly-half Mack Mason gets the nod, against a very tough opponent.
Scott Robertson’s squad have taken the injury blows handed to them and continued on their path to the top of the Super Rugby table, which considering the absence of Kieran Read, Israel Dagg and Richie Mo’unga is very impressive.
Young backs in George Bridge and Jack Goodhue have impressed but the core of the Crusaders machine lies upfront, where having three Test locks fighting for two spots in Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano can only be a good thing.
Whitelock has shown real leadership during his time as captain before Read returns and thanks to the Crusaders’ excellent set-piece game, notably their maul, they have a weapon to pick the Waratahs off with time and again on Sunday.
With a bye on the horizon, the Crusaders can aim to put their feet up for a week with six wins from six. Win in Sydney and they will look like serious contenders.
The last time these teams met: Last year’s meeting in Christchurch was a one-way affair as the Crusaders cruised to a 29-10 win over the Waratahs. A fast start inspired by Johnny McNicholl saw the hosts open up a 12-0 lead. Despite Rob Horne’s score the Crusaders went in ahead 22-5 at the break thanks to a third try from Richie Mo’unga. Jordan Taufua crossed next for the Crusaders, countered by a consolation score from Zac Guildford, as the Crusaders won comfortably albeit without a bonus point.
Team news: Waratahs boss Daryl Gibson has named his side with Mack Mason set to make his Super Rugby debut when he steps into the number ten jersey with Bernard Foley ruled out. Mason was one of the stand out players part of the Australian U20 side in 2016 that went on to claim victory against New Zealand. Further changes will see Rio Olympian Cam Clark starting at full-back with Israel Folau moving back into the centres, as Rob Horne has been ruled out due to a low grade hamstring injury.
Meanwhile, Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson has made four changes, including two positional switches. Joe Moody returns to the starting line-up to start at loosehead prop, with Wyatt Crockett covering on the bench. Scott Barrett, who had a successful outing on the blindside flank in last weekend’s win over the Western Force in Christchurch, moves back into his more familiar position of lock alongside Sam Whitelock, with Luke Romano in the reserves. Jordan Taufua shifts to six and Whetu Douglas returns at number eight. The backline is unchanged.
Form: The Crusaders have won 12 of their last 14 games against the Waratahs (L2),though the New South Wales side’s two wins in that run have come in the last three meetings between the teams. The spoils are split at four wins apiece between these clubs in their last eight meetings in New South Wales, with the average winning margin across those games coming in at just four points per game. The Crusaders have won on their last four visits to Australia, the last time they enjoyed a longer streak was a club-best five straight wins from 1999 to 2000.
2016: Crusaders won 29-10 in Christchurch
2015: Waratahs won 32-22 in Sydney
2014: Waratahs won 33-32 in Sydney (Final)
2013: Crusaders won 23-22 in Christchurch
2012: Crusaders won 37-33 in Sydney
2011: Crusaders won 33-18 in Nelson
2010: Crusaders won 20-13 in Christchurch
2009: Crusaders won 17-13 in Sydney
Replacements: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 David Lolohea, 19 David McDuling, 20 Michael Wells, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Irae Simone, 23 Taqele Naiyaravoro
Crusaders: 15 David Havili, 14 Digby Ioane, 13 Tim Bateman, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 George Bridge, 10 Mitchell Hunt, 9 Mitchell Drummond, 8 Whetu Douglas, 7 Matt Todd, 6 Jordan Taufua, 5 Sam Whitelock (c), 4 Scott Barrett, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Pete Samu, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Manasa Mataele
Date: Sunday, April 2
Venue: Allianz Park, Sydney
Kick-off: 16:05 local (06:05 GMT)
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Will Houston (Australia), Ed Martintt (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)