The Waratahs will have top spot in their sights when they take on their closest Australian rival the Brumbies at ANZ Stadium on Saturday.
The Waratahs will have top spot in their sights when they take on their closest Australian rival the Brumbies at ANZ Stadium in Sydney on Saturday.
Michael Cheika's men, who have the stingiest defence and strongest points difference in 2014, have improved so much this year that it could well be time to ditch the bridesmaids tag and at last talk about them as being serious title contenders due to the quality they have at their disposal.
Personnel has helped that turn of events, of that there's little doubt, as Israel Folau is flourishing in his second season while Bernard Foley can only be delighted with how the first six months of the year have gone. Meanwhile, Kurtley Beale adds a great deal from centre, with Jacques Potgieter, Wycliff Palu and Michael Hooper tireless carriers, each offering very different options when the Waratahs look to cut loose with ball in hand.
The team's fine form led to recognition on the international front as twelve of their matchday 23 for this Saturday featured in a Ewen McKenzie squad in that 3-0 series win against France. Such a mass inclusion is testament to the work being done by Cheika and both his coaching and playing staff since pre-season.
Will Skelton is another to stand out as the giant capped a great start to the year with his international debut last week. Expect him to do ample damage when he emerges off the bench, with the Brumbies possessing their own wrecking ball in the form of Fotu Auelua.
Speaking of the visitors, this is win or bust in terms of topping the conference and with an injury-hit line-up, few give them a chance. Injuries have played their part of late as Matt Toomua joins Pat McCabe, Joe Tomane, David Pocock and Stephen Moore to miss out.
Jesse Mogg subsequently has a chance to silence his doubters while Christian Lealiifano finds himself in a similar boat after missing the June Tests. Meanwhile, Henry Speight will know a strong performance against Rob Horne will do his Wallaby chances no harm at all.
It truly is now or never for last year's finalists though as they know a bad performance here – versus a side who have lost just twice at home this season – could see them drop from fourth to seventh. Factor in a bye to come after this and their fate is then out of their hands.
Form: The Waratahs return to their home ground for the first time since May 18 when they demolished the Lions 41-13. Since then two games on the road saw them score 41 and 33 points in victory so scoring hasn't been an issue. The Brumbies meanwhile have lost their last three matches away from home – at the Crusaders, Cheetahs and Bulls – so enter low on confidence. They did however beat the Waratahs 28-23 in Canberra earlier in the year.
2014: Chiefs won 21-19 in Hamilton
2013: Chiefs won 19-7 in Hamilton
2013: Chiefs won 41-27 in Dunedin
2012: Chiefs won 27-21 in Dunedin
2012: Highlanders won 23-19 in Hamilton
Prediction: The hosts should take this and thus hit the summit. Waratahs by 10!
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alofa Alofa, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Rob Horne, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Dave Dennis (c), 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Jacques Potgieter, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Stephen Hoiles, 21 Brendan McKibbin, 22 Jono Lance, 23 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 24 Cam Crawford.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Andrew Smith, 11 Robbie Coleman, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen (c), 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Jordan Smiler, 5 Leon Power, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Ruaidhri Murphy, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Luke Holmes, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 JP Smith, 19 Fotu Auelua, 20 Jack Whetton, 21 Michael Dowsett, 22 Clyde Rathbone, 23 Lionel Cronje.
Date: Saturday, June 28
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 19.40 local (09.40 GMT, 10.40 BST)
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Andrew Lees (Australia), Ian Smith (Australia)
Television match official: Peter Marshall (Australia)