The Waratahs will hope to make up ground on the Brumbies when they run out in Dunedin to face the Highlanders on Saturday.
Daryl Gibson has endured choppy waters all year in Sydney but the derby win over the Rebels last Sunday pointed to how good the Waratahs can truly be when everything begins to click.
Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley and Israel Folau all need to be at their best six days on from that high-scoring game but while Hooper has been as efficent as ever, the latter pair either through injury or loss of form haven’t looked as sharp.
That has led to a supporting cast including Ned Hanigan, Michael Wells and Tolu Latu all stepping up at key moments, and the inexperience has shown.
Too often in 2017 the ‘Tahs defence has been easily split open and that has stemmed from a lack of leadership. This is a side with an attack ranking in the top half across most statistical areas, yet with the worst tackle success percentage in the competition at 80.4. Miss around one in every five tackles, and those narrows wins turn into narrow defeats.
By contrast the Highlanders are coming off a brilliant tour, building belief amongst their squad with those desperately late wins over the Cheetahs and Bulls before they landed in Perth.
A tougher task was expected, and yet the Highlanders absolutely took the Force to the cleaners a highly impressive win. When your loosehead prop is coming away with two tries, things must be going well.
Adding to that vibe is the return to action of Ben Smith, after an extended lay-off, along with Waisake Naholo as well as he returns from his suspension. Their returns mean that Matt Faddes gets a week’s rest, highlighting the depth available to the 2015 champions.
Liam Squire remains sidelined with that broken thumb but as ever seems to be the case with the New Zealand franchises, young back-row Dillon Hunt has stepped in and caught the eye in recent outings.
Hunt will be well tested by Hooper, but overall given home advantage and the way the Highlanders attacked at such a ferocious pace last weekend, predicting the same again doesn’t feel like a stretch.
The last time the teams met: Both sides ran in four tries apiece in Sydney last year, with the boot of Lima Sopoaga proving to be the difference as the Highlanders won 30-26. All Blacks back-row Elliot Dixon scored two tries while Waratahs back-row Jed Holloway finished with a hat-trick. The Highlanders’ defence held out in the closing stages after Holloway’s third try had put the hosts within a five-pointer of the win, but it wasn’t to be.
2016: Highlanders won 30-26 in Sydney
2015: Highlanders won 35-17 in Sydney
2015: Highlanders won 26-19 in Dunedin
2014: Waratahs won 44-16 in Sydney
2012: Highlanders won 18-17 in Dunedin
2011: Waratahs won 33-7 in Sydney
2010: Highlanders won 26-10 in Invercargill
2009: Waratahs won 34-16 in Sydney
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Aki Seiuli
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon (cc), 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Lima Sopoaga, 23 Rob Thompson
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Rob Horne, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Cam Clark, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Tom Robertson
Replacements: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 Angus Taavao, 19 David McDuling, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Bryce Hegarty, 23 Irae Simone
Date: Saturday, May 27
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-Off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe
Assistant Referees: James Doleman, Cam Stone
TMO: Shane McDermott