The Waratahs host the Highlanders at Allianz Stadium in Sydney on Saturday in what should be a thrilling trans-Tasman Super Rugby quarter-final.
This is the fifth consecutive year the Highlanders have made the play-offs, finishing in sixth position at the end of the round robin stage. They are also in the familiar position of being on the road having played only two knockout games at home since the inception of Super Rugby (1999 and 2015).
For the Waratahs, it has been some turnaround after last year’s record-low finish of 16th. The Sydneysiders are top of the charts for points, metres made and clean breaks, and third overall for tries.
However, their success has come mainly against weaker Australian opposition as they have only managed the one win against New Zealand teams – a 41-12 victory over the Highlanders earlier in the season. That scoreline may look emphatic, but it is important to remember that the Waratahs were playing with a man extra for three quarters of the game after Tevita Nabura was red-carded in the 19th minute.
The Highlanders have a pack equipped to stifle quick ball for the opposition, and if they do that successfully, it should prevent a potentially dangerous Waratahs backline stretching their legs. 125kg Taqele Naiyaravoro and three-times John Eales medal record-holder Israel Folau have scored 27 tries between them this season and that’s not counting how many they have created.
The Waratahs will take confidence from the fact that they average 35 points per game this season and in the Highlanders they are coming up against a side that has conceded 127 points in their last three fixtures since returning from the international break.
Much has been made in the build-up to the game, however, of the Highlanders’ decision to rest the majority of their key players last weekend, with the mind games being ramped up in midweek as the Waratahs said this could backfire on the visitors come Saturday. This was in response to Aaron Smith’s initial barb that the Waratahs may feel the ‘pressure’ of defending their ‘fortress’.
Whoever wins between these two sides will set up a semi-final meeting with either the Lions or Jaguares, who meet later on Saturday.
The last time the teams met: The Waratahs ended Australian sides’ 40-match losing streak against New Zealand opposition with a 41-12 win. They were helped somewhat considerably by Highlanders wing Tevita Nabura’s early red card, as they scored through Lalakai Foketi, Curtis Rona, Taqele Naiyaravoro (2) and Israel Folau (2).
Team news: Waratahs head coach Daryl Gibson has made just one change to his starting line-up.
Alex Newsome will start on the right wing in place of Cam Clark, who moves to the bench.
Waratahs hooker Damien Fitzpatrick will play his 50th match for New South Wales and is three caps away from a half century of Super Rugby games.
Meanwhile, the Highlanders welcome back several players such as All Blacks Ben Smith, Aaron Smith and Luke Whitelock, with Rob Thompson also in the side.
Coach Aaron Mauger is excited by the opportunity they have this weekend.
“These are the opportunities the guys work hard all year for and there are no second chances,” he said.
“It’s simply about putting our best performance on the field on Saturday. The Waratahs are a quality side playing at home which presents an awesome challenge for our guys, but like I said, these are the games we love to play.”
2018: Waratahs won 41-12 in Sydney
2017: Highlanders won 44-28 in Dunedin
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
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley (c), 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Will Miller, 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Tom Robertson
Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Brad Wilkin, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Cameron Clark, 23 Bryce Hegarty
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon (cc), 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Kalolo Tuiloma, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Matt Faddes
Date: Saturday, July 21
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 20:05 local (11:05 BST, 10:05 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Nic Berry (Australia), Will Houston (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)