The Waratahs will be looking to claim a win that could end Australia’s drought against New Zealand sides when they host the Highlanders on Saturday.
The Waratahs have five wins from 10 games but still sit top of the Australian Conference. The Highlanders, who have seven victories from the same number of matches are third in the New Zealand Conference by comparison.
The Highlanders have dominated their Australian counterparts in recent history, winning the last four previous meetings between the sides.
As has been well documented, an Australian side has not beaten New Zealand opposition in 39 attempts. Although they have lost their last six against Kiwi opposition, the Waratahs have crossed for four or more tries in those half a dozen games.
Israel Folau has contributed the highest percentage of those tries. The 28-year-old, who is a master of controversy these days, has scored five tries in his last five games against New Zealand opposition, bagging two braces in that time.
But not even “Izzy” is likely to prevent the inevitable. After that once-off shocker against the Sharks, the Highlanders were back to their ruthless and efficient ways in the 39-27 victory over the Lions last weekend.
With the return of some key players including Aaron Smith to bolster the side this weekend, the men from Otago are set to be even harder to contend with.
The Waratahs, meanwhile, will still be wondering how they managed to let slip a 29-0 lead against the Crusaders in their last fixture. That game sums up the ‘Tahs this season – either really good or really bad. That is reflected in their 50 percent win record.
The Highlanders are such a patient side and have scored 10 tries after holding possession for seven phases or more, so Michael Hooper and company will have to stifle Highlanders’ ball at the breakdown if they want to get anything from the match.
The last time the teams met: The Waratahs took a 14-13 lead into half-time after Richard Buckman scored for the Highlanders before Israel Folau responded shortly afterwards. A couple of Marty Banks penalties took the Highlanders’ lead out to 13-7 but Taqele Naiyaravoro scored for the ‘Tahs on the stroke of half-time. The second-half was a much more one-sided affair with tries from Liam Coltman, Tevita Li, Rob Thompson, Daniel Lienert-Brown and Lima Sopoaga proving too much for the visitors who scored through a Jake Gordon brace as the Highlanders claimed a 44-28 victory.
Players to watch:
For Waratahs: So good have the performances of Jake Gordon been, that he has made it almost impossible for coach Daryl Gibson to leave him out. Gordon has a knack of chipping in with crucial tries, as the Highlanders will well know when the nuggety nine scored a brace against them the last time the sides met.
For Highlanders: Watch out for hard-running outside centre Rob Thompson, who is in excellent form this season. He runs intelligent support lines, regularly busts tackles and has a brilliant offloading game. With that in mind, he doesn’t shirk his defensive responsibilities either but will have to adapt this weekend to having a new centre partner alongside him in Patelesio Tomkinson.
Team news: Waratahs head coach Daryl Gibson has included lock Tom Staniforth and scrum-half Jake Gordon in his team.
Staniforth replaces Ned Hanigan, who has been ruled out with a knee injury and Gordon starts ahead of Nick Phipps, who is on the bench.
Hanigan’s injury also gives an opportunity to 20-year-old Eastern Suburbs lock Ryan McCauley, who has been named in the reserves along with hooker Tolu Latu.
Meanwhile, the Highlanders are boosted by the return of forward duo Jackson Hemopo and Dillon Hunt.
The return of lock Hemopo and flanker Hunt to the pack, Patelesio Tomkinson’s selection in the midfield and Aaron Smith back at scrum-half are the main features of the Highlanders team to take on the Waratahs on Saturday.
Hemopo replaces veteran lock Alex Ainley and the hard-working Hunt returns for James Lentjes.
In the backs, Smith takes the place of the well performed Kayne Hammington, and Tevita Li is back from injury and will take a spot on the bench.
Tomkinson gets his first starting opportunity in the midfield with Teihorangi Walden sitting the game out after experiencing concussion symptoms during the week.
A former NZ U20 player, Tomkinson, is a hard-hitting young midfielder from Otago who has had limited opportunities since joining the club last season.
Form: The Waratahs had mixed fortunes at the beginning of their season, with a win over the Stormers, a draw with the Sharks and a loss to the Jaguares. The New South Wales outfit bounced back by putting together a four-match winning streak with victories over the Rebels, Sunwolves, Reds and Brumbies. But since then, they have lost three on the trot against the Lions, Blues and Crusaders.
Meanwhile, the Highlanders started like a house on fire with three consecutive victories over the Blues, Stormers and Crusaders before slipping up with back-to-back defeats to New Zealand rivals the Hurricanes and Chiefs. The Otago outfit responded with three successive wins against the Brumbies, Blues and Bulls. What followed was a comprehensive defeat at the hands of the Sharks before they showed character to bounce back, overcoming the Lions in their previous fixture.
Prediction: Highlanders to continue the Australian sides’ misery. ‘Landers by seven.
2017: Highlanders won 44-28 in Dunedin
2016: Highlanders won 30-26 in Sydney
2015: Highlanders won 35-17 in Sydney
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
2010: Highlanders won 26-10 in Invercargill
2009: Waratahs won 34-16 in Sydney
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Cam Clark, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Jake Gordon, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Will Miller, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Tom Staniforth, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Tom Robertson
Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Shambeckler Vui, 19 Ryan McCauley, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Nick Phipps, 22 Lalakai Foketi, 23 Bryce Hegarty
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Patelesio Tomkinson, 11 Tevita Nabura, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Ash Dixon (cc), 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Kalolo Tuiloma, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Marino Mikaele Tu’u, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Tevita Li
Date: Saturday, May 19
Venue: Allianz Stadium
Kick-off: 19:45 local (09:45 GMT)
Referee: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: William Houston (Australia), Graham Cooper (Australia)
Television match official: George Ayoub (Australia)