Every point is precious now in the Waratahs and Hurricanes bids to make the play-offs in the penultimate round of Super Rugby.
First place in their respective conferences is still a real possibility for both sides. The Waratahs are tied on points with the Brumbies in the Australian Conference but nudged into second having lost won one fewer match than their rivals.
For the Hurricanes the New Zealand Conference appears set for a chaotic finish, with just three points separating the first-placed Chiefs from the fourth-placed Highlanders. Stumble in Sydney and the Hurricanes may see their hopes of winning the conference, and also possibly grabbing a wildcard spot, go up in smoke.
As things stand, finishing anywhere but first in the Australian Conference would mean they miss out on the post-season, with a trip to Eden Park to face the Blues rounding out their season which is the same fixture the Brumbies face this week. Essentially, it’s all very finely poised.
Daryl Gibson’s side came out of the June break with a nine-try stroll against the Sunwolves, certainly stretching their legs, but the Hurricanes will be a significantly bigger challenge than the Sunwolves.
That said, they hold a good record against the Hurricanes in recent matches. The Waratahs have won six of the last eight meetings between these twosides, this after winning just four of the first 12 (lost eight).
More impressively the ‘Tahs have won seven of their last eight regular season home games against sides from New Zealand, the last four wins in that run all coming by 10 point margins.
It’s little surprise to see the experience of Nick Phipps return at scrum-half despite Matt Lucas’ two-try appearance last week and that Test match experience of his partnership with Bernard Foley is a major positive.
As for the Hurricanes they always stand a chance with Beauden Barrett in this kind of imperious form, but while his line-breaks tend to steal the show there’s more to his game than that.
Barrett has made 126 kicks in general play so far this season, more than any other player and 26 more than the Waratahs’ best, Foley (100).
A blockbuster game from Julian Savea is still on the waiting list but the rest of the Hurricanes have taken their turn to shine, with Vaea Fifita filling the role last week after his two-try performance.
The Blues didn’t make things easy for the Hurricanes but they still made it nine wins out of 13 games this season, a record which seemed beyond them after that opening day humbling from the Brumbies.
Here they sit however right in contention, having won their last three matches and made more metres than any other sides in the competition.
The last time the teams met: The Waratahs triumphed 29-24 in Wellington last year. A bonus point victory in April went down to the wire but it was the then defending champions who had the final say, Peter Betham scoring two tries for the Waratahs to go with scores from Will Skelton and Israel Folau to secure maximum points. Conrad Smith and Beauden Barrett were the two try scorers for the hosts, who had led the Super Rugby table going into the contest.
Players to watch: How the Waratahs need a big game from Will Skelton around the park on Saturday. The giant lock’s gain-line carries have broken several defences in the past but the Waratahs will hope to get the better of the Hurricanes in the scrum, applying plenty of pressure on new tighthead Chris Eves, and Skelton has a major role to play in that regard.
Meanwhile for the Hurricanes the work of James Marshall has often gone unnoticed this season, but his dovetailing with Barrett has been a major weapon for the Hurricanes in helping last year’s finalists to add plenty of width to their attack. Marshall doesn’t lack for speed either and should make an impact if given a chance this Saturday.
Team news: Waratahs head coach Daryl Gibson has made five changes to his starting line-up. Powerful number eight Wycliff Palu makes a welcome return to the starting side, injecting some added experience and leadership to the back row together with Dean Mumm and team captain Michael Hooper. Club captain, Dave Dennis will pair up with Will Skelton in the second row, while in the backs, Matt Carraro returns to the starting XV, joining Taqele Naiyaravoro on the wing. Jack Dempsey, Matt Lucas and Reece Robinson will provide welcome support off the bench for the ‘Tahs this weekend following their impressive performances against the Sunwolves in the last round. Dean Mumm is set to run our for his 100th Super Rugby game this weekend, while Matt Carraro will celebrate his 50th Super Rugby and Waratahs match.
Meanwhile, tighthead prop Chris Eves and midfielder Willis Halaholo have been called up by the Hurricanes. Eves comes into the starting team for Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, who broke his arm during the Hurricanes’ 37-27 win over the Blues last weekend, while Halaholo earns a promotion from the reserves after Vince Aso was ruled out with a calf strain. Experienced prop Ben May and midfielder Ngani Laumape, who has recovered from a groin strain, come into the reserves, while openside Callum Gibbins returns to the squad after skipping the Blues match due to concussion.
Form: The Waratahs have won an impressive six out of their last seven matches in Super Rugby, with that only defeat coming back in Round 13 when they were well beaten 29-10 by the Crusaders in Christchurch. The Waratahs have won each of their last three home games, each by margins of 15 points or more, this after losing three on the bounce in New South Wales before that.
The Hurricanes meanwhile have won their last three matches since a run of two losses in three games, when they fell to the Sharks and Chiefs. Renowned for their attacking game, the Hurricanes also boast the second best scrum success percentage rate in the competition with 96 percent.
Prediction: Close to call, especially with so much riding on the outcome of this fixture. The Waratahs’ recent home form though has to be considered strongly and knowing that if they lose their shot at the play-offs might well be over, desperation might just see the 2014 champions over the line. Waratahs by 3.
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
2007: Waratahs won 38-14 in Wellington
Waratahs: 15 Andrew Kellaway, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Israel Folau, 12 Rob Horne, 11 Matt Carraro, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Dean Mumm, 5 Will Skelton, 4 David 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
Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Chris Eves, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Reg Goodes
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Ben May, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ngani Laumape, 23 Jason Woodward
Date: Saturday, July 9
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 19:40 local (09:40 GMT)
Referee: Chris Pollock
Assistant Referees: Andrew Lees, James Leckie
TMO: Ian Smith