Preview: Waratahs v Blues

Date published: March 27 2015

The Waratahs could close the gap on the Brumbies to just one point in the Australian conference with a bonus-point win over the Blues on Saturday.

Such was the importance of their victory against Stephen Larkham's side last week that they are now very much back in the race for top spot. And if they can take all five points in Sydney, it would put all the pressure on the Brumbies when the 'Tahs take a round off next weekend.

Their opponents meanwhile are in dire straits at the bottom after no wins from their first five games, with four bonus-points to their name.

Unfortunately the Blues have been unable to play at last season's fortress, their home patch Eden Park, due to the Cricket World Cup, which hasn't helped their cause in 2015. They do, however, run out there in Round 9 against the Brumbies, one week after going to face with the Chiefs. By that point though, hopes of making the knockout stages could well be on the back burner for another season for Sir John Kirwan's charges.

Indeed the pressure is building on Kirwan to stop the rot at the Blues as while their pack is strong and backline shows glimpses of quality, they are missing a winning formula that the champion Waratahs have in abundance. Psychologically it surely has to be a home win in Sydney.

The last time these team met: The Waratahs came unstuck at fortress Eden Park last year, which meant it was three straight losses in Auckland for the Sydneysiders. Tries from Lolagi Visinia and Francis Saili and the boot of Simon Hickey did the damage in a 21-13 victory.

Players to watch: The try-scoring drought was ended for Israel Folau last week and this fixture is set up for him to build on that score against the Brumbies. The Blues' defence must be on full alert for the Wallaby full-back in the wide channels and much rests on George Moala, who starts at outside centre in place of Charles Piutau. Piutau reverts to the number fifteen jersey and will offer a great deal in attack for the Blues, who must also match the power of Bok flanker Jacques Potgieter in the tussle up front. 

Team news: Waratahs boss Michael Cheika has named an unchanged starting XV for Saturday's clash. The only tweak to their matchday 23 sees the inclusion of Wallaby hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau, who returns this week after his recent omission due to an injury. Meanwhile for the Blues, fly-half Daniel Bowden will make his first appearance of the campaign when Sir John Kirwan's struggling outfit run out in Sydney. He replaces Ihaia West who drops out of the squad. The Blues are boosted by the return of skipper Jerome Kaino, who missed their defeat to the Hurricanes due to a concussion. Steven Luatua moves to six in place of Brendan O'Connor who is openside, while Hayden Triggs is in at lock.

Form: It has been a hot and cold start to the season for the 'Tahs but victory over Australian conference rivals the Brumbies was a huge result last Sunday. That brought them within six points of the Canberra franchise and with them on a bye for this round, the 'Tahs can get to within just a point of them if they get the bonus-point victory over the Blues. Speaking of the New Zealand strugglers, they've lost all five of their fixtures thus far this season, and head into this weekend's encounter desperate to open their account. It is a tough ask.

Prediction: We're expecting a high-scoring game in Sydney but the hosts won't make as many mistakes as the Blues. 'Tahs by 15!

Previous results:

2014: Blues won 21-13 in Auckland
2013: Waratahs won 30-27 in Sydney
2011: Blues won 26-13 in Auckland
2011: Blues won 31-17 in Auckland
2010: Waratahs won 39-32 in Sydney

The teams:

Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Matt Carraro, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Jacques Potgieter, 5 David Dennis (c), 4 Will Skelton, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements (two to be ommitted): 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 18 Jeremy Tilse, 19 Paddy Ryan, 20 Sam Lousi, 21 Mitchell Chapman, 22 Stephen Hoiles, 23 Brendan McKibbin, 24 Jono Lance, 25 Peter Betham.

Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 George Moala, 12 Francis Saili, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Dan Bowden, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Jerome Kaino (captain), 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Hayden Triggs, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi/Sam Prattley, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Culum Retallick, 20 Luke Braid, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 Pita Ahki.

Date: Saturday, March 28
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 19.40 (21.40 NZST, 08.40 GMT, 10:40 SAST)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Andrew Lees, Damien Mitchelmore (Australia)
TMO: Peter Marshall (Australia)