The Waratahs, are still licking their wounds after a five-day turn-around from a mauling by the in-form Crusaders.
They must be cursing the draw as they fly into Wellington for their do-or-die Round 7 match against yet another in-form Kiwi side, the Hurricanes. Why couldn’t they have drawn the Sunwolves this week? Oh well, they have a bye in Round 8.
The big news is that flyhalf Bernard Foley is fit to play and winger Taqele Naiyarvoro starts for the first time in the season, replacing Reece Robinson. In some late news, Rob Horne, who was slotted to return, has been ruled out with a hamstring injury, which means that Israel Folau remains at outside centre. Cameron Clark slides over to the left wing as Bryce Hegarty comes into the starting side at fullback. Andrew Kellaway plays from the bench.
In the forwards loose head prop Paddy Ryan replaces Tom Robertson who has concussion issues, and Michael Wells wears the 8 jersey replacing Jed Holloway, who has not regained last year’s form yet.
It is difficult to find much to be enthusiastic about when looking at the Tahs’ form this season. They have shuffled and reshuffled the deck, cut the cards five or more times, hinted they had an ace up their sleeve but failed to do more than bluff so far.
Michael Hooper and Tolu Latu are no doubt nursing sore backs from having carried much of the rest of the squad in 2017.
It is time for the others to stand up and show why they have Super Rugby contracts. 100% efforts from first whistle to last have been absent thus far. They have rarely found the spark that will ignite the fire, and a repeat on Friday night will be a major setback to what little hope of a finals’ berth remains.
Although they have rested some of their gun players in recognition of the Waratahs’ poor form, they still have danger all over the park: the Barretts, under-rated Matt Proctor, Laumape and the returning Cory Jane will relish the service of TJ Perenara as he barks orders to the workhorses Fatialofa, Shields and Gibbins.
The Canes’ forward pack is mobile, hardworking and will not take prisoners against the Tahs. Busy forwards Ricky Riccitelli and the versatile Chris Eves will be chomping at the bit to show their wares.
The Tahs will be grateful that neither of the Saveas have been named, nor All Black hooker Dan Coles, but there is danger on the Hurricanes bench, with the impressive Vaea Fifita waiting for another chance.
Vaea Fifita – impressive substitute
Why should I bother?
There will be some exciting tries scored unless the rain that is building on the North Island continues to bucket down.
The Canes play a brand of rugby that excites the soul and reminds me why I love the Game They Play in Heaven – and who knows – the Waratahs could remember what they did in the second half in Melbourne two weeks ago.
Can Taqele Naiyaravoro do this again in 2017?
Key match ups
There’s no other way to view it – the inclusion of the moving mountain Taqele Naiyaravoro surely indicates that the Tahs are going all-in. Big T is virtually impossible to pull down when he has a bit of space to gather speed and he will certainly attract enough attention from the Hurricanes outside backs to possibly create a bit of space elsewhere. I imagine wingers Jane and Goosen will be drawing straws to see who will be marking him.
Bernard Foley – his return should make a difference
The no. 10s
The return of Bernard Foley should bring more flair to the attack and hopefully he will conjure some space for Folau and Naiyaravoro.
Beauden Barrett’s pace, vision and clever kicking game will keep the Waratahs awake on Thursday night and he must be thinking that the inclusion of Naiyaravoro might be an opportunity for a kick in behind.
Promising young Waratah Ned Hanigan gets another chance to put his name into Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika’s little black book and there would be few who would begrudge him being included in at least the early national squads. He is a wholehearted forward who plays with ferocity and we can certainly use a few more of his ilk.
His direct contest with the tough Brad Shields, who will be playing in his 70th Super Rugby game, will be a good measure of his progress.
The battle at set piece should be relatively even with the Canes having an edge at lineout time. The Tahs would be foolish to allow them many opportunities to throw in the ball.
Ned Hanigan – his ferocity will be needed
The game plans
The Hurricanes just have to do what they have been doing the whole session.
The Waratahs must reduce the Canes’ ball carrying opportunities. Any kicks must either sail well over the sideline or be contestable to the max. Woe betide the Tahs if they choose to kick the ball back to the Canes aimlessly – nothing good comes from that.
Transitions from attack to defence must be quicker because the Canes move the ball rapidly from turnovers. Perenara’s ability to find unfocused defenders should be ringing alarm bells for Coach Gibson, and Beauden Barrett’s deft chip kicks should be in the front of the mind for the Tahs’ defenders.
When they have the ball, the Tahs must find a way to penetrate but that seems to have evaded them for most of the season. Jake Gordon’s try against the Crusaders was a shining light of how to utilise a runner from depth and we all know what Folau can do in space. Will Gibson’s roll of the dice in starting Naiyaravoro pay off?
Pigs may not be able to fly but the Tahs must muscle up in the physical aspects of the game. Starving the Canes of possession is paramount as is making their tackles – and being in the the right place to make them in the first place. A high scoring match will almost certainly see the Tahs on the wrong side of the scoreline.
There is no evidence that the Tahs can execute the above plan against the Super Rugby Champions unless the home team has a shocker and the resting of key players has some effect.
Oh, and the Waratahs play out of their skins.
Hurricanes by 15
Beauden Barrett – master first-five for the Hurricanes
1. Ben May
2. Ricky Riccitelli
3. Jeffery To’omaga-Allen
4. Mark Abbott
5. Michael Fatialofa
6. Brad Shields
7. Callum Gibbins
8. Reed Prinsep
9. TJ Perenara
10. Beauden Barrett
11. Wes Goosen
12. Ngani Laumape
13. Matt Proctor
14. Cory Jane
15. Jordie Barrett
16. Leni Apisai
17. Chris Eves
18. Mike Kainga
19. Vaea Fifita
20. Toa Halafihi
21. Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi
22. Otere Black
23. Vince Aso
1. Paddy Ryan
2. Tolu Latu
3. Sekope Kepu
4. Dean Mumm
5. Will Skelton
6. Ned Hanigan
7. Michael Hooper (c)
8. Michael Wells
9. Jake Gordon
10. Bernard Foley
11. Cameron Clark
12. David Horwitz
13. Israel Folau
14. Taqele Naiyaravoro
15. Bryce Hegarty
16. Damien Fitzpatrick
17. Sam Needs
18. David Lolohea
19. Dave McDuling
20. Jed Holloway
21. Nick Phipps
22. Irae Simone
23. Andrew Kellaway
Date: Friday, 7 April 2017
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19.35 local, 17:35 AEST
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (RSA)
Brendon Pickerill (NZ), Shuhei Kubo (Japan)
TMO: Glenn Newman (NZ)