Preview: Waratahs v Highlanders

Date published: June 25 2015

The Waratahs could host a second straight Super Rugby Final in Sydney if results go their way in the semi-finals on Saturday.

If the Brumbies succeed away in Wellington against the Hurricanes and the Waratahs hold off the Highlanders then the defending champions will get the chance to win it all again in front of their home fans. If only the path to that outcome were so simple.

Michael Cheika's team have overcome patchy form and a narrow conference battle with the Brumbies to earn their home semi-final, while arguably never quite matching their brilliant form of 2014.

The Waratahs finished the year with three wins fewer than the year before, when they tied the record for most victories in the regular season at 14, but it's appropriate that these two sides should meet in the semi-final given the Highlanders finished with 53 points and the Waratahs with 52 – a single try-bonus point separating their totals.

Yet the Waratahs are in their house, something that has proved crucial in recent clashes between these two given the home side has won each of the last six encounters.

Experience too is crucial – this is the first time the Highlanders have played in the semi-finals since 2002, with the Waratahs reaching the knockout stages eight times since then.

Jamie Joseph's group have thrived off a tight bond with their lesser-known players shining through. Richard Buckman's progression at inside centre typifies that success, while Elliot Dixon, Mark Reddish and 33-year-old Alex Ainley, who only made his debut at this level a few months ago, have surpassed all expectations.

Those forwards have created the platform for Aaron Smith to hit the form of his life with those uncontainable bursts from close range, and for Lima Sopoaga to make the leap into being one of Super Rugby's top fly-halves.

The Highlanders have created a reliable spine, but the Waratahs have thrived off that over the last couple of years.

Dave Dennis, Michael Hooper, Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Israel Folau give them security and confidence, although the absence of Kurtley Beale in midfield will be felt however reliable Matt Carraro can be.

Hooper has an enormous role to play given the Highlanders have made the most turnovers in Super Rugby this year (168) and the Waratahs the fewest (94). The sides have scored over 100 tries between them but both hold low tackle success percentages, meaning there should be plenty of points.

Watching two of Super Rugby's most entertaining teams clash at this stage is a dream fixture, and one that we cannot wait to get started.

The last time these teams met: Back in March the Highlanders were winners by seven points in Dunedin when they outscored the 'Tahs by four tries to three for a 26-19 victory. A late converted try from Stephen Hoiles gave the visitors a valuable losing bonus point while the Highlanders' dangerous back three of Patrick Osborne, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith were all on the scoresheet.

Players to watch: The Highlanders and Waratahs are fortunate to have plenty of attacking weapons in their arsenal, but two stand out especially. In what is supposed to have been a quiet season by his standards, Israel Folau has made more metres than any other player this year with 1606, along with making the most carries, offloads, and beating the second-highest number of defenders. That's quite impressive considering we haven't seen the best of Folau yet in 2015. His presence is a weapon in itself given that teams will always commit defenders to mark him and therefore free up space elsewhere.

Waisake Naholo on the other hand is the competition's top try scorer with 11, while making the highest number of clean breaks and the second-highest number of metres behind Folau. That doesn't tell the full story though of what an impact Naholo has made on Super Rugby this season. Before the start of the campaign he was a relatively unknown prospect heading to Clermont, but he has taken the competition by storm. In particular his solo effort against the Chiefs towards the end of the regular season was extra special.

Other players to keep an eye on include Jacques Potgieter and Adam Ashley-Cooper, in what may be their final games for the Waratahs, along with Aaron Smith who has been electric in 2015. Bernard Foley and Lima Sopoaga also have to be considered given their points hauls this year, with Foley kicking at 69 percent and Sopoaga at a 71 percent success rate.

Team news: For the hosts Carraro has been named to play in the centres after Kurtley Beale failed to complete training on Thursday. Carraro's move to midfield sees Rob Horne return to the starting XV on the left wing having recovered from a calf niggle. Dean Mumm is not eligible to play in the finals series and drops off the replacements bench in favour of Patrick McCutcheon.

The Highlanders have named inexperienced openside flanker James Lentjes in their starting XV. Lentjes, who made his Super Rugby debut in March this year, fills the gap left by the injured Dan Pryor (dislocated elbow). The 24-year-old's inclusion is the only change to the starting line-up. The team also welcomes back experienced lock Joe Wheeler from a lengthy injury break to take his place on the bench alongside Trent Renata. 

Form: A run of seven wins from their final nine games of the season helped propel the Waratahs into second spot, as they finished five points clear of the Brumbies in the Australian Conference. Those two losses in that run came away from home to the Lions and Force. The Waratahs have an even record of three wins and three losses in semi-finals. They have averaged just 18 points and have never scored more than 28 in those games.

Both the Highlanders and Waratahs lost their first games of the year. The New Zealand side has won six of their last eight matches and those six victories have been by a combined margin of 148 points. Since April, the Highlanders have suffered away defeats to the Brumbies, Lions and Hurricanes.

Prediction: Splitting these two all-thrills outfits apart is no easy task and each deserve a chance to have a crack at the final given how well they've done so far. The Highlanders have surpassed our expectations once again and along with the Hurricanes will go down as 2015's great entertainers.

But, if the Waratahs do achieve parity at the breakdown, plus the factors of being away from home and their inexperience at this stage, we feel the Highlanders may just narrowly miss out. Waratahs by 4!

Previous results:

2015: Highlanders won 26-19 in Dunedin
2014: Waratahs won 44-16 in Sydney
2012: Highlanders won 18-17 in Dunedin
2011: Waratahs won 33-7 in Sydney

The teams:

Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Matt Carraro, 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 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson
Replacements (one to be omitted): 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Mitchell Chapman, 20 Stephen Hoiles, 21 Patrick McCutcheon, 22 Brendan McKibbin, 23 Jono Lance, 24 Peter Betham

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds. 
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Shaun Treeby.

Date: Saturday, June 27

Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney

Kick-off: 19:55 local (09:55 GMT, 11:55 SAST, 21:55 NZST)
Referee: Craig Joubert
Assistant Referees: Andrew Lees, James Leckie
TMO: George Ayoub