Planet Rugby

Preview: Waratahs v Brumbies

24th July 2014 15:59

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Waratahs full back Israel Folau fending against Brumbies

Top try scorer: Israel Folau

An all-Australia semi-final in Sydney sees the table-topping Waratahs host 2013 runners-up the Brumbies at Allianz Stadium.

This clash shouldn't be anywhere near the 39-8 thrashing the Waratahs handed out to the Brumbies back in June, but it's also no surprise to see the home side come into the contest as heavy favourites.

Reading the Brumbies is tricky. For all of their brilliance in the opening quarter against the Chiefs last Saturday, they only avoided extra time in Canberra thanks to Aaron Cruden's missed conversion.

Michael Cheika and his coaching staff will have pored over the tape and spotted numerous defensive problems from last weekend, notably the Brumbies being opened up on the inside ball. That pass has become a favourite for Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale all season.

Other areas for Laurie Fisher and Stephen Larkham's men though are strong. Not a single lineout was lost out of 14 by 33-year-old newcomer Josh Mann-Rea and his lineout corps, proving that while Stephen Moore might be missed around the park the set-piece continues to function smoothly.

In Leon Power, Sam Carter and Scott Fardy, the Brumbies possess a tall engine room of physical bodies whose task is to disrupt the Waratahs at every corner and force Tatafu Polota-Nau to throw riskier balls.

The 'Tahs have had a week to get arguably their weakest area fine-tuned, benefiting from having taken on the Brumbies so recently and as a result knowing where to patch up their lineout. Managing the Brumbies maul is another demand high on the list for the home side.

Concern for the Brumbies though has to lie with their scrum - statistically the worst in the competition with a 76 percent success rate.

A cornerstone of the 'Tahs success has been the improvement of Sekope Kepu at tighthead and his battle with Scott Sio will be key.

Kepu is just one of a handful of effective ball carriers who have got the Waratahs over the gain line and given Nick Phipps and Foley quick ball. Add in Polota-Nau, Jacques Potgieter, Michael Hooper and Wycliff Palu to the equation and it's easy to understand their progress - big bodies with burst of speed who are always tricky to put down. And who just keep on coming at you.

Foley is a strong contender for Player of the Year, with his form translating from Super Rugby through to the Test matches for the Wallabies against France.

Australia are blessed with game-breaking orchestrators such as Foley and Kurtley Beale and Matt Toomua and Christian Lealiifano - but the first two have had the better of their Brumbies counterparts this year, whereas the reverse was true in 2013 when Beale was languishing in Melbourne while Foley established himself.

Pointing to the back-three, Henry Speight's run-out against the Chiefs showed why he will be a Wallaby in the near future, while the other three wingers that'll run out in Sydney - Robbie Coleman, Alofa Alofa and Rob Horne - are all slightly unheralded. Considering he's had a poor season, Jesse Mogg has still come away with eight tries. There's also some guy called Israel Folau at full-back for the Waratahs, but more on him later.

Perhaps the most important point is this; Australia has two sides through to the semi-finals of Super Rugby and New Zealand and South Africa don't.

Looking at not just the depth but also the manner in which these two Australian sides play, Ewen McKenzie's job seems easy.

Does Super Rugby dominance translate to Test rugby success? Not exactly, but a corner has been turned. It gives Australian rugby huge cause for optimism moving forward, particular when surveying the number of young players who are hitting their stride.

There was a mild concern a few years ago that the Wallabies would achieve very little without the trio of James Horwill, Will Genia and Quade Cooper in play. Yet down to either a drop in form or injury they have all been overtaken.

What's more, these two sides are playing with a freedom and skill level that's intoxicating. You can't take your eyes off the Waratahs. You look forward to watching them play regardless of their opponent. That certainly can't be said for every side.

It would be fitting if Super Rugby's best team in 2014 went on to win the championship. But the Brumbies, last year's beaten finalists, stand in their way.

Ones to Watch

For Waratahs: The top try-scorer in Super Rugby this year, Israel Folau. Seemingly set to fall short of Joe Roff and Rico Gear's single season record of 15, Folau is held in such high regard then even when his form dipped ever so slightly mid-season he was scrutinised. Though if you set the high standard that he has done over the last two years, that's inevitable. Folau is as much of a threat with the ball in hand as he is mentally for an opposition defence. Defensively he isn't perfect. Going forward, he's not far off.

For Brumbies: If Nic White goes well then the Brumbies tend to follow. The scrum-half may come into play if Christian Lealiifano struggles to find his range with the boot, but White offers more than just his skills off the kicking tee. Marshalling his pack around will be key as will his vision in trying to find space for his runners. Not shy of a sharp blindside dart as we saw against the Chiefs. With front-foot ball he can win this contest for the visitors.

Head to Head: Big clashes all over, but the battle of the two number eights stands out. Wycliff Palu has had a brilliant year. Imposing and tough to stop, Palu can be a menace when he hits form. Ben Mowen is slightly different, an essential cog of the Brumbies lineout with 67 takes this year (the third highest in the competition). Both are essential.

Form: The Waratahs have won their last seven matches in a row, finishing the regular season with more victories than any other side (12). They are yet to lose at home this season and have scored the most points in the competition, along with conceding the least. With their win over the Chiefs the Brumbies have now won three of their last six matches. They lost in Sydney in June but did defeat the Waratahs at home earlier this season.

Previous Results:

2014: Waratahs won 39-8 in Sydney
2014: Brumbies won 28-23 in Canberra
2013: Waratahs won 28-22 in Sydney
2013: Brumbies won 35-6 in Canberra
2012: Brumbies won 19-15 in Sydney

Prediction: The Waratahs will continue a fine year by booking a Super Rugby Final in Sydney for next weekend. Waratahs by five.

The teams:

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 (capt), 6 Stephen Hoiles, 5 Jacques Potgieter, 4 Kane Douglas, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: 16 Tola Latu, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 Jeremy Tilse, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Mitch Chapman, 21 Pat McCutcheon, 22 Brendan McKibbon, 23 Matt Carraro, 24 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 25 Cam Crawford (two to be omitted).

Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Robbie Coleman, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen, 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Leon Power, 4 Sam Carter, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Ruaidhri Murphy, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Allan Alaalatoa, 19 Fotu Auelua, 20 Tom McVerry, 21 Michael Dowsett, 22 Joe Tomane, 23 Pat McCabe.

Date: Saturday, July 26
Kick-off: 19:40 local (10:40 BST, 09:40 GMT)
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert, James Leckie
TMO: George Ayoub

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