The Hurricanes can go level on points with the high-flying Crusaders on Friday if they beat the Waratahs with a bonus point in Wellington.
After four wins from five games, which has also seen them pick up five bonus points, they can put their game in hand to good effect this week. That would put the pressure on Scott Robertson’s Crusaders, who are on a bye week, in a fiercely competitive New Zealand conference.
In contrast the ‘Tahs have won two of their six games but due to the Brumbies not firing they’re only three points off Australia’s summit.
The Hurricanes have decided to rotate their side somewhat with one eye possibly on next week’s clash at the Blues. Julian Savea and Vince Aso drop out of the XV – Savea gets a weekend off – while an injury to Ardie Savea sees him miss out. They should however come out on top.
TJ Perenara has been superb at the base and continues to lead the side in the absence of Dane Coles. His combination with Beauden Barrett of course will be crucial to the Hurricanes’ game-plan while Ngani Laumape and Matt Proctor have also been performing well in the centres.
There just isn’t that same feeling of familiarity in the Waratahs camp as the chopping and changing in position of Israel Folau and injury to Bernard Foley hasn’t helped their early-season. Daryl Gibson will however be thrilled to have the Wallaby fly-half back for this Friday.
What will also give the Waratahs a glimmer of hope of causing an upset is the fact they have won on three of their last four visits to Wellington. However, the Hurricanes have won three of their last five games against the ‘Tahs, this after losing four fixtures in a row prior to that.
Also in the ‘Canes’ favour is that they have won their last eight games at home, their longest such streak, and have kept their opposition to single figures in four of their last five home fixtures. They have also won each of their last four home games against Australian sides by an average margin of 34 points. That will be concerning for a ‘Tahs side that has conceded 25 tries in their first six games this year.
The head therefore leans heavily towards the Hurricanes, which would be another blow to not just the Waratahs but Australian rugby in general at a time when the continued uncertainty surrounding their Super Rugby franchises is clearly having a negative effect on their form in 2017.
The last time the teams met: The Hurricanes ended a two-game losing streak against the ‘Tahs with a 28-17 win in Sydney last season. They scored one try in the first-half, coming through fly-half Beauden Barrett, for an 11-10 lead and despite Israel Folau crossing soon after the break for the home side, the Hurricanes recovered, going over for further tries from wings Cory Jane and Julian Savea to seal victory.
Players to watch: It was expected that at some point in the year Jordie Barrett would take over the kicking responsibilities from brother Beauden due to him being a more reliable option. While it might not be ideal for New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen having his fly-half not taking the shots at goal, the Hurricanes should benefit, not only with Beauden being able to fully concentrate on the aspects of his game that make him such a lethal back, but for Jordie too as his confidence will grow and grow. A big game and rest of the season awaits.
For the Waratahs the focus is likely to be on second-row Will Skelton before kick-off after his decision to join Saracens at the end of this season was confirmed on Tuesday. The Wallaby is a special talent and will be sorely missed by the ‘Tahs and Australia when he moves north, especially as he’s about to enter the peak of his playing career. Saracens will benefit, the Waratahs will hope they do until then.
Team news: Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd has made four changes to his starting side. Wing Cory Jane is set for his first appearance of the season after missing the opening five matches with a neck injury suffered in the build-up to the season opener against the Sunwolves. He replaces the tournament’s leading try scorer Vince Aso on the right wing, while Wes Goosen gets a first start of 2017 on the left wing in place of Julian Savea. In the loose forwards, Reed Prinsep moves off the reserves to take his place at number eight for the third time in 2017 after Ardie Savea suffered a calf strain against the Reds last Saturday in Brisbane. And in the front row, Ben May is at loosehead.
The Waratahs have been boosted by the return of fly-half Bernard Foley for Friday’s game. The return of the Wallaby isn’t the only change to the starting line-up, with impressive winger Taqele Naiyaravoro also returning. Another Wallaby, Rob Horne, was named in the original run-on side but had to withdraw following Wednesday’s field session. With Horne out, Israel Folau will return to outside centre after he was initially named at full-back and Bryce Hegarty steps into the full-back position while Irae Simone will slot into the number 22 shirt. Cam Clark moves onto the wing with Michael Wells starting at number eight and Paddy Ryan in at loosehead prop for the Wellington fixture.
Form: The Hurricanes are on a two-game winning run and have claimed victories in four of their five games so far in 2017. Last week it was the Reds who were brushed aside in a 34-15 result in Brisbane, with all four of their triumphs this campaign being bonus-point successes.
The Waratahs have played one more game than their hosts but have only managed two wins from their six fixtures. Last weekend they were on the receiving end of a 41-22 negative at the hands of the Crusaders in Sydney, leaking six tries in that game which is a worry for Friday.
Prediction: The ‘Tahs will struggle to contain the 2016 champions for the full 80 minutes. Expect the hosts to cut loose. Hurricanes by 20.
2016: Hurricanes won 28-17 in Sydney
2015: Waratahs won 29-24 in Wellington
2014: Waratahs won 39-30 in Sydney
2013: Hurricanes won 41-29 in Wellington
2012: Hurricanes won 33-12 in Sydney
2010: Waratahs won 32-16 in Sydney
2009: Waratahs won 26-22 in Wellington
2008: Waratahs won 20-3 in Sydney
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Wes Goosen, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara (c), 8 Reed Prinsep, 7 Callum Gibbins, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeffery To’omaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Ben May
Replacements: 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
Waratahs: 15 Bryce Hegarty, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Israel Folau, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Cam Clark, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Paddy Ryan
Replacements: 16 Damien Fitzpatrick, 17 Sam Needs, 18 David Lolohea, 19 David McDuling, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Irae Simone, 23 Andrew Kellaway
Date: Friday, April 7
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Shuhei Kubo (Japan), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)