Posted by Planet Rugby on March 14, 2015
Highlanders v Waratahs
After respective opening defeats, the Highlanders and Waratahs enter their clash in Dunedin on Saturday on the back of two Super Rugby wins.
The champions - although not anywhere near their best - recaptured their hardened edge in victories over the Rebels and Reds and showed enough to suggest those sort of ugly wins will keep them in the mix at the business end of the season. They will get better as the year plays out.
Jamie Joseph's Highlanders meanwhile demonstrated real spirit to respond from that home loss to the Crusaders, with the Reds and Chiefs seen off. That win in Waikato was a coming of age for many of their squad as they look to go from fancied outsiders to consistent play-off contenders.
There is no doubt the men from Dunedin have the quality in their squad to make that step up and who better to prove it against than the 2014 champions. Malakai Fekitoa might fancy his chances against Matt Carraro while their impressive back-row will relish taking on a tough 'Tahs trio.
Shaun Treeby's return at inside centre last Friday was a boost, as his experience and solidity in defence limited the running threat posed by Sonny Bill Williams. And he must repeat that performance against Kurtley Beale this week as if he and Israel Folau are kept quiet, one would have to say the hosts have enough strike power and intelligent ball players in their backline to unlock the Waratahs at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
So, another statement from Joseph's men or will it be that this Waratahs pack is too strong and streetwise and seals a first away win over the Highlanders since 2008? It should be tasty whatever the result at a fitting venue that is shielded from any detrimental elements from above.
The last time these team met: They met once last season and it was a comfortable home win for the Waratahs, who ran out 44-16 victors. The clash in Sydney, which came in the penultimate round of the regular season saw 'Tahs tries scored by Rob Horne, Folau, Sekope Kepu, Nick Phipps, Jacques Potgieter and Taqele Naiyaravoro, with Phil Burleigh grabbing the consolation score for a well-beaten Highlanders franchise.
Players to watch: The quality of fly-half Lima Sopoaga was a welcome lift last week and combined with the impact assured goal-kicker Marty Banks has off the bench in the closing stages, the Highlanders have a good double act that could play a role in back-to-back games.
On the other side of the field, Israel Folau is on something of a try-scoring drought right now and will be keen to cross.
Team news: For the Highlanders, Elliot Dixon moves to six to make way for Shane Christie who will be making his 2015 Super Rugby bow. Tom Franklin comes back into the starting line-up after impressing off the bench and a reshuffle in the front-row sees Ross Geldenhuys start while Pingi Tala'apitaga moves on to the replacements bench to cover for Ma'afu Fia, who received a knee injury during last weekend's match.
The Waratahs remain without the influential Adam Ashley-Cooper so Matt Carraro continues in the number thirteen position after a strong game against the Reds last time out. It is a starting XV that shows no changes from that 23-5 win in Brisbane as they look at solid unit up front.
Form: A Round One bye meant the Highlanders were playing catch-up in Round Two and it showed against the Crusaders as they failed to fire. However, they have bounced back admirably with wins over the Reds and Chiefs, with the latter an outstanding result that sets them up well for this week. Likewise the Waratahs have found form after a first-up loss and their wins over the Rebels and Reds mean they enter this game full of confidence. Despite Folau not yet firing on all cylinders, the likes of Bernard Foley and their powerful forwards look in synch.
Prediction: Home field advantage has been a factor in recent meetings between these two so we are going with that.Highlanders by 2!
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
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Josh Hohneck.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Pingi Tala'apitaga, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 John Hardie, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Peter Betham, 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 (captain), 4 Will Skelton, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson.
Replacements: Tolu Latu, Jeremy Tilse, Paddy Ryan, Sam Lousi, Mitchell Chapman, Stephen Hoiles, Brendan McKibbin, Jono Lance, Taqele Naiyaravoro/Ben Volavola.
Date: Saturday, March 14
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19.35 local (06.35 GMT; 08:35 RSA; 17.35 AEDT)
Referee: Craig Joubert
Assistant referees: Kane McBride, Mike Lash
TMO: Vinny Munro