The Waratahs travel to Dunedin on somewhat of a high after a solid but incomplete thumping of the Rebels in Melbourne last weekend.
They haven’t won in Dunedin since 2008 and will be looking to build on last week’s performance to become the first Australian side to beat the Kiwis this season, and most importantly to keep their finals hopes alive.
The Clan are in impressive form, having won their last eight matches in a row, a club record. Importantly, their last three outings yielded three wins on the road—a miracle finish in Bloemfontein, a scrappy mud match in Pretoria, and a 55-6 poleaxing of the Force in Perth.
The Tahs have been in erratic form winning only four of their eleven games and becoming renowned for producing incomplete, 40-minute performances. Last week they managed to increase that to a (final) 60 minute performance against the Rebels, playing some of their best rugby for the season in the dominant win.
Ben Smith – back for the Highlanders
The home team are strengthened by the returns of Ben Smith, in at fullback for Matt Faddes, and of Aaron Smith moving from the bench to the starting lineup. Waisake Naholo returns from suspension to replace Patrick Osborne on the wing, and Luke Whitelock replaces Gareth Evans in a reshuffled backrow.
Marty Banks is rewarded for a strong season so far, remaining as the starting first-five ahead of Lima Sopoaga who will enter the arena from the pine for the second week since returning from injury.
The Waratahs have taken some faith from last week’s performance and named an unchanged side.
Marty Banks – has kept his spot
Why should I bother?
This match promises to be an exciting encounter as it is a must-win game for both teams.
The Highlanders sit fourth on the NZ Conference ladder, however they are only two points out of second spot; so a strong run into the finals could see them avoid the top teams (Crusaders and Lions) in the first round of the playoffs.
From the Waratahs’ point of view, it’s do or die in every game now to stay in contention for the top spot on the Australian Conference, and thus be the only Australian team in the playoffs.
A win here is essential as they are already relying on the Brumbies dropping a game or two later on to qualify.
Aaron Smith – will be a handful for the Waratahs
The halves – Phipps/Foley v Smith/Banks
With the match likely to be played at test match speed, the composure and experience of the halves combinations will be crucial in setting the platform for the out-wide attack.
The energy of Phipps and the steadiness of Foley up against the tactics and accuracy of Smith and Banks should ensure an intriguing tactical battle in close.
The fullbacks – Folau v Smith
Arguably the number one and number two fullbacks in the world will be facing off against one another.
They have different skill sets however, with Folau being a player who can be devastating when he is given space, whereas Smith is a player who can create that for himself.
If the game is played at a fast tempo as expected both of these players could open it right up.
The 7s – Hooper v Hunt
Hooper’s stats from last week’s match were nothing short of astounding, with his run metres and linebreaks being the envy of any outside back, and that complemented his four turnovers.
Hunt is a relative new kid on the block, but has been very good of late, playing much more the traditional fetching role of the openside.
Michael Hooper – had a commanding game last week
This year’s statistics for the two teams are interesting. The Clan have a dominant point scoring record, but only just, and have clearly played a kicking game, averaging 29 kicks from hand per game, compared to 20 for the Tahs.
The Tahs have made more run metres, had more carries, and thrown more passes than the Highlanders.
My inference here is that the Waratahs will throw everything at the Highlanders in attack, with a nothing-to-lose mindset.
In contrast, the Highlanders will play a tactical kicking game and use their pace out wide. The risk for the Waratahs here – if they don’t counter it adequately – is that Naiyaravoro could be left exposed.
I think we will see a high-scoring encounter, and as much as I hope that the Waratahs can win…
Highlanders by 15
1. Aki Seiuli
2. Liam Coltman
3. Siate Tokolahi
4. Alex Ainley
5. Tom Franklin
6. Eliiot Dixon
7. Dillon Hunt
8. Luke Whitelock
9. Aaron Smith
10. Marty Banks
11. Tevita Li
12. Richard Buckman
13. Malakai Fekitoa
14. Waisake Naholo
15. Ben Smith (cc)
16. Ash Dixon (cc)
17. Daniel Lienert-Brown
18. Siua Halanukonuka
19. Joe Wheeler
20. Gareth Evans
21. Kayne Hammington
22. Lima Sopoaga
23. Rob Thompson
1. Tom Robertson
2. Tolu Latu
3. Sekope Kepu
4. Dean Mumm
5. Will Skelton
6. Ned Hanigan
7. Michael Hooper (c)
8. Michael Wells
9. Nick Phipps
10. Bernard Foley
11. Taqele Naiyaravoro
12. David Horwitz
13. Rob Horne
14. Cam Clark
15. Israel Folau
16. Damien Fitzpatrick
17. Paddy Ryan
18. Angus Ta’avao
19. David McDuling
20. Jed Holloway
21. Jake Gordon
22. Bryce Hegarty
23. Irae Simone
Date: Saturday, 21 May 2017
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 7:35 pm local; 5:35 pm AEST
Referee: Ben O’Keefe (NZ)
James Doleman (NZ), Cam Stone (NZ)
TMO: Shane McDermott (NZ)
Data used courtesy of Opta Sports