It’s do or die for the Waratahs when they host the Hurricanes at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night.
The Waratahs have 39 points, the same as their Australian Conference rivals the Brumbies. However, one more win puts the Canberrans in the box seat as Conference leaders. It also relegates the Sydneysiders to sixth in the Australasian Group, with only the top five qualifying for the playoffs.
The equation for the Waratahs is simple. If the Waratahs win comfortably, they live to fight another day. With results going their way, the trip to Eden Park becomes even more important. A loss, well that will probably be curtains for season 2016.
The Hurricanes have 44 points, putting them fourth in the Group, but just a point clear of the Highlanders. While a loss wouldn’t be season-ending, a win not only eliminates the ‘Tahs from the finals contention, they become an outside chance to finish top of the New Zealand conference. They would also need to beat the Crusaders, and the Chiefs to drop a game.
Daryl Gibson has made five changes to the side that thrashed the Sunwolves. Wycliff Palu returns to number eight, and Dave Dennis will partner Will Skelton in the second Row. Matt Carraro earns another start, this time on the Wing. Matt Lucas has recovered from a rolled ankle and will rotate to the bench. Nick Phipps earns a recall to the starting side.
The Hurricanes paid a heavier price for their 37-27 win over the Blues. Injuries to Prop Jeffery Toomaga-Allen (broken forearm) and Lock Blade Thomson (dislocated shoulder) rule them out for the season. Chris Even comes into the side at Prop, while midfielder Willis Halaholo earns a start at Centre.
The loss of Toomaga-Allen and Thomson may give the home side an edge at scrum time. However, the ‘Canes will likely win the lineout battle as the Waratahs are expected to stick with fielding two ball-winners (plus Skelton).
The contest between Michael Hooper and Ardie Savea is just mouth-watering. Hooper tends to range a little wider (sea-gulling, some call it) than Savea, which could give Hooper the edge. The season stats for both players are virtually identical, and both players will be key to their team’s fortunes.
The battle between the two rakes, Tatafu Polota-Nau and Dane Coles, will also be compelling.
Probably the most-criticised Wallabies of the June Tests were Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley. Critics thought Nick was far from his best, with scatter-gun passes leading to poor service. Bernard Foley earned the ire of critics for “popgun and inaccurate” kicking game.
Both were key in the 20-point win over the Chiefs in Round 14, but Foley does appear to be missing Kurtley Beale. Phipps has become more easily rattled than you’d expect from a player with his experience. They will be targeted.
The Hurricanes will be steered around the park by Beauden Barrett, who has been in career-best form for most of the season. He nailed six from seven against the Blues, after slightly remodeling his kicking action. TJ Perenara has much to prove, having been overtaken by Tawera Kerr-Barlow as New Zealand’s number two scrumhalf.
Midfield & Back Three
The move of Israel Folau to 13 has paid huge dividends; it’s allowed the promising Andrew Kellaway much more game time. Rob Horne continues to turn in workmanlike performances week-in, week-out regardless of which jersey he’s wearing. The return of the big rig Taqele Naiyaravoro gives strike-power out wide that was lacking earlier in the season.
The Hurricanes may be without Nehe Milner-Skudder, but Cory Jane remains a threat both in attack and defence. Julian Savea, his partner in crime, looks to be in far better physical and mental shape than earlier in the year, when Coach Boyle dropped him from the team. Matt Procter has made a strong return from serious injury.
The Waratahs’ lack of kicking options to exit their half makes it tempting to kick deep and to touch then pressure their lineout, or deep but not to touch then isolate Foley. The downside, of course, is Folau’s astonishing ability under the ball and on kick return. It’s a gamble but expect plenty of kicks into the corners and hard chasing to prevent the quick throw-in or pressure Foley as the case may be.
The Hurricanes play a similar style to the Chiefs, so the ‘Tahs will need to avoid feeding them counter-attacking opportunities. They must force them to commit bodies to the contact area by using their big units, either through the middle or one-off runs. They’ll need to be on point with their handling and ball retention and recycling. The Blues found to their cost, turning the ball over to the Hurricanes has consequences.
A bonus point win to either side seems improbable, but both are more than capable of victory, or of taking a losing bonus point. It’s a close call but I’m going with the visitors, but only just.
Hurricanes by 4.
At Allianz Stadium, Sydney: Saturday 9th July from 7:45 PM AEST
Referee: Chris Pollock
Assistant Referees: Andrew Lees & James Leckie
TMO: Ian Smith
Paddy Ryan, Tatafu Polota-Nau , Tom Robertson , David Dennis (VC), Will Skelton, Dean Mumm, Michael Hooper (C), Wycliff Palu , Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Matt Carraro , Rob Horne, Israel Folau, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Andrew Kellaway.
Replacements: Hugh Roach, Jeremy Tilse, Angus Ta’avao, Sam Lousi, Jack Dempsey, Matt Lucas, David Horwitz, Reece Robinson
Reggie Goodes, Dane Coles (c) , Chris Eves , Vaea Fifita , Michael Fatialofa , Brad Shields , Ardie Savea , Victor Vito , TJ Perenara (vc) , Beauden Barrett , Julian Savea , Willis Halaholo , Matt Proctor , Cory Jane , James Marshall.
Replacements: Ricky Riccitelli, Ben May, Loni Uhila, Mark Abbott, Callum Gibbins, Jamison Gibson Park, Willis Halaholo, Jason Woodward.