Vital points are at stake for the leaders of the Australian and New Zealand Conferences this weekend when the Waratahs take on the Chiefs.
Each side has only a slender one-point lead to their name ahead of the Brumbies and Crusaders respectively, but it’s a mark of the strength of their respective groups that the Waratahs have only won six games this season to the Chiefs’ nine.
Given there are teams in hot pursuit, neither side will want to slip up going into the final game before the international break next month.
Daryl Gibson’s squad come into this one off a sizeable loss away to the Crusaders, with that defeat ending a four-game winning run in the competition just as the Waratahs looked to be turning the corner after a shaky start.
Kurtley Beale’s season-ending injury has led to another backline reshuffle this week in the search for a winning formula, but despite that this XV for Friday looks settled with the veteran presence of Wycliff Palu, Rob Horne and Zac Guildford returning.
They have another reason to be positive too – the Waratahs have won five of their last six games against the Chiefs, though this will be their first encounter since Round 16, 2014.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs bounced back from only a second loss of the season to the Highlanders by comfortably dispatching the Rebels last weekend.
The ball just wouldn’t stick in the hands during that Highlanders loss, with the Chiefs returning easily their lowest points total of the season (13).
For the side with the best attack in the competition, that’s an abomination. However the competition’s top try scorers (42) have watched the top spots for the most carries, defenders beaten, clean breaks and offloads be taken away from them by other teams in recent weeks.
A dip was expected after that rampaging winning streak the Chiefs enjoyed earlier this season but heading to Sydney they will take real heart from the strength of their form away from home.
The Chiefs have won all five of their games away from home so far this season; they are the only team this campaign yet to lose a game on the road. With so many dangerous backs taking it in turns to shine this season, they pose some threat.
The last time these teams met: The Waratahs won healthily 33-17 in New Plymouth in their title-winning season, ending the Chiefs’ hopes of three-peating. Israel Folau, Dave Dennis and Bernard Foley all scored tries for the ‘Tahs, with Foley adding three penalties and two conversions, and Bundee Aki crossed twice for the Chiefs in a losing effort.
Players to watch: A return to the centre for Waratahs veteran Rob Horne is no bad thing. Used most recently out on the wing by both the Waratahs and also the Wallabies, Horne has the direct running ability and strength to break tackles and provide a real threat to the Chiefs defence. It’s a new combination in midfield alongside Israel Folau, but one that has potential. Both are experienced Test players.
Dictating the pace is key for the Chiefs which puts the onus on Brad Weber to keep the tempo up. The All Blacks announce their squad for the June Tests on Sunday and have a phenomenally strong stable of scrum-halves, but Weber’s form this season deserves recognition. Both an excellent distributor and sniping runner around the fringes who can’t be ignored.
Team news: The Waratahs have made four changes to their starting side. Wycliff Palu has been injected as the number eight in place of Jed Holloway who re-injured his shoulder during last week’s match against the Crusaders. Zac Guildford returns as the starting winger following his standout performance off the bench last week, which saw him cross for his debut try in the NSW jersey to deny his former Crusader team-mates a bonus point. Reliable utility back, Matt Carraro also joins the XV on the opposite wing, while Rob Horne will play at inside centre for his 100th game for NSW.
The Chiefs have made one injury enforced change to their starting side for this cencounter. Tom Sanders is promoted from the bench to start at number eight after Michael Leitch sustained a hand injury against the Rebels.
Form: It’s been six wins out of 11 for the Waratahs this season but four of those have come in their last five games, a run of momentum that enabled them to chase down the Rebels and Brumbies to eventually go top. The lineout has been a real issue – only the Sunwolves have a worse success percentage in that area of the set-piece.
Aside from their recent loss to the Highlanders the Chiefs have only been defeated once all year, on the opening day of the season by the Crusaders in Christchurch. A seven-game winning streak followed. The Chiefs have won only twice against the Waratahs in Sydney in Super Rugby in nine attempts, losing seven away to the ‘Tahs in total. The Chiefs have scored 52 tries this season, the most of any team and they are the only side to have scored half a century of tries going into Round 14.
Prediction: Hard to look past the first-place Chiefs as they head into the international break with another impressive win. Chiefs by nine.
2014: Waratahs won 33-17 in New Plymouth
2013: Waratahs won 25-20 in Sydney
2012: Chiefs won 30-13 in Hamilton
2011: Waratahs won 23-16 in Sydney
2010: Waratahs won 46-19 in Hamilton
2009: Waratahs won 11-7 in Sydney
2008: Chiefs won 20-17 in Hamilton
2007: Chiefs won 28-23 in Sydney
Waratahs: 15 Andrew Kellaway, 14 Matt Carraro, 13 Israel Folau, 12 Rob Horne, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Dean Mumm, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dave Dennis, 3 Tom Robertson, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Paddy Ryan
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Jack Dempsey, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 David Horwitz, 23 Reece Robinson
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (cc), 9 Brad Weber, 8 Tom Sanders, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Mitchell Graham
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Kane Hames, 18 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 19 Michael Allardice, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 Sam Vaka
Date: Friday, May 27
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 19:45 local (09:45 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant Referees: Jaco van Heerden, Ed Martin
TMO: Peter Marshall