Preview: Waratahs v Brumbies

Date published: March 20 2015

The champions host their closest rivals in the Australia Conference on Sunday, as the Waratahs tackle the Brumbies.

The opening rounds have not been a smooth experience for Michael Cheika’s side, with sides more savvy to their strengths and flaws while that fluidity which made them such an exciting force last season hasn’t quite returned.

There have been moments, such as their well-worked tries early on last Saturday against the Highlanders, and with two wins out of four matches so far their start hasn’t exactly been disastrous.

Everyone just knows that this great side packed full of Wallabies is capable of more. Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale can only run the show if the boys upfront create a platform and that hasn’t happened consistently this year so far.

Kane Douglas is missed in that regard, even with Dave Dennis having moved up into the second row. The Highlanders were simply more physical last week and somewhat blew the ‘Tahs away when they racked up four tries and 26 unanswered points, all from winning the contact area and one-on-one collisions.

Malakai Fekitoa’s celebrated rip on Israel Folau summed up the proceedings. So, the Waratahs will know that their defence cannot be as soft if they are to retain their title.

Especially coming up against the Brumbies with a ten-point gap in the Australian Conference already between the two sides (although the Waratahs have a game in hand).

Whereas the champions just haven’t really got going, the Brumbies are on a roll and top the table. There’s something effortless about Stephen Larkham’s side when they find their groove, which has happened in the last two games.

Facing the hapless Reds twice already has certainly helped their points difference and standing in the table, but a combined score of 76-3 over those two matches is nothing to be sniffed at.

More often than not their physical pack gets the better of the opposition, with Ita Vaea proving to be an inspiration at the back of the eight in his return after two years out.

Having David Pocock back on the bench only helps matters. Even with the best still to come from Joe Tomane, Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight the Brumbies look threatening and ready to thrash the next side that lowers their guard.

That won’t happen on Sunday in a clash not far away from a Wallabies trial game, although the players don’t see it that way. These two are Australia’s best hope of a Super Rugby champion and after their misfiring start to the campaign and a bit of a bullying at times in Dunedin, the ‘Tahs will be out to make a statement.

Waratahs lock Will Skelton on the supposed ‘Wallabies trial’: "I think at the moment from now until July, I think (it’s all about) the Super Rugby final, it's all about the Waratahs, well for me it is. And I think the Brumbies are thinking about the Brumbies.

Brumbies captain Stephen Moore: "It certainly helps having consistency through the group week in, week out. Bringing David off the bench is exciting not only for him but for the rest of the boys, we all enjoy playing with him.

The last time these teams met: The 2014 semi-final in Sydney. Alofa Alofa’s third-minute try set the ‘Tahs on their way to resounding 28-6 win, sealed by Bernard Foley’s late score. Henry Speight was the only try scorer for the visitors as the Waratahs secured a home Super Rugby final against the Crusaders.

Players to watch: Big games are required from the Waratahs back row in this one with Jacques Potgieter in need of a strong outing after an inconsistent start to the year, much like the rest of his team. When the big Springbok is on-song he’s outstanding with ball in hand and in the set-piece.

Pocock’s action off the bench will be intriguing, but limited bar an early injury, so attention falls elsewhere and on rising star Rory Arnold, who is worth paying attention to in the second row. Over two metres tall and making a real impact around the breakdown, Arnold has been impressive so far.

Team news: Taqele Naiyaravoro and Tolu Latu have been brought into the Waratahs starting side, while Hugh Roach has been named on the bench for the first time in 2015. Tatafu Polota-Nau misses out through injury.

Pocock meanwhile is the only change to the 23-man squad for the Brumbies as he takes the number 20 jersey. Tighthead prop Ben Alexander, who has three tries in his last two games, will look to keep his run going.

Form: The champions were stunned in their first game of the season by the Force, in another game were they were beaten down physically and could never get into the contest with multiple handling errors. A bye week in Round 3 came in the middle of wins over the Rebels and Reds, both expected, before last week’s slump against the Highlanders when they worked hard to secure a losing bonus point.

The Brumbies' form is better, their one defeat coming away to the Chiefs in Round 2 (17-19). A stumbling win over the Rebels followed but the Brumbies were much better in their win over the Force, with their thrashings of the Reds bookending their first five matches.

Prediction: The Waratahs have to click into top gear eventually but the Brumbies pack has taken no prisoners in recent weeks and may prove too powerful. This one could be high-scoring.Brumbies by 5.

Previous results:

2014: Waratahs won 26-8 in Sydney (Semi-Final)
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
2012: Brumbies won 23-6 in Canberra
2011: Waratahs won 41-7 in Sydney

The teams:

Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 13 Matt Carraro, 12 Kurtley Beale, 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 Tolu Latu, 1 Benn Robinson. Replacements (one to be omitted): 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Mitchell Chapman, 21 Stephen Hoiles, 22 Brendan McKibbin, 23 Jono Lance, 24 Peter Betham

Brumbies: 15 Robbie Coleman, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ita Vaea, 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore (c), 1 Scott Sio. Replacements: 16 Josh Mann-Rea, 17 JP Smith, 18 Ruan Smith, 19 Jordan Smiler, 20 David Pocock, 21 Michael Dowsett, 22 James Dargaville, 23 Lausii Taliauli

Date: Sunday, March 22
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 16:05 local (05:05 GMT, 18:06 NZDT, 07:05 SAST)
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Jaco Peyper, Stuart Berry (both South Africa)
TMO: George Ayoub