Super Rugby Quarterfinal Preview
Saturday 21st July
Waratahs vs Highlanders
Date: Saturday, July 21
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 20:05 local, 10:05 GMT, 12:05 SA Time
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Nic Berry (Australia), Will Houston (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
I guess we do not need to flog that tired old horse anymore. The iniquity of a team that finishes joint fifth on the overall log, with 44 points, earning the “right” to a home semi-final due to some freak of geographic positioning cannot be over emphasised, but it is the way Super Rugby is structured at this time, and I doubt whether Australia would agree to forgo their automatic right to a team in the quarterfinals and the hosting rights, no matter where their team ended on the log. Perhaps South Africa might side with them too, a quarterfinal is often a lucrative event, especially in South Africa where as many as 65 000 have crammed into a stadium to watch such an event.
Be that as it may, there is something inherently wrong with the system.
Not, it seems, that the Highlanders will mind too much. They would be in the same situation, no matter how the rules were changed. They would be travelling to play in their quarterfinal. Whether it is to a city elsewhere in new Zealand, across to Australia, over to South Africa, or even all the way to Buenos Aires – the Highlanders would have had to travel. They are quite used to travelling for a playoff game.
This is the fifth consecutive year the Highlanders have made the playoffs. They have played only two playoff games at home since the inception of Super Rugby, playing in Dunedin in1999 and 2015.
The Waratahs will say that 2018 has been a remarkable turnaround year for the, especially after finishing in 16th, third from the bottom in 2017. They will tell that they have scored 557 points in the regular season, putting them at number one on the table. They have scored 74 tries, third on the table, and they have made 12019 meters with the ball in hand, 2nd on the table. Their 97 linebreaks puts them fourth on the table.
That is all good stuff, but there is a reality check needed, it has come mainly against weaker Australian Conference opposition. They have only managed the one win against a team from New Zealand – a 41-12 win while playing against 14 men for 61 minutes after Tevita Nabura was red-carded for his karate kicking exploits in the 19th minute.
Seven of their nine wins in 2018 have been against fellow Australian Conference franchises. A win against the Stormers, who could not win a fancy dress party away from home in 2018, and that win over the Highlanders are the only successes against non-Aussies!
Their points accumulation rides on the back of a number of very big wins over the likes of the Sunwolves (77-25 and 50-29) and the Rebels (51-27), the Reds (37-16 and 52-41), these games providing 267 points in just 5 of their 16 games. Then there were a lot of high scoring games where their opposition also put plenty of points past them. Winning 34-27 against the Stormers, losing 39-27 to the Chiefs, winning 31-26 over the Rebels, going down 40 to 31 to the Brumbies a week ago. In all, they allowed the opposition to score 445 points while they scored their 557, for the positive points difference of 112. In effect, their positive points balance was earned in those five games I mentioned above, where, despite massive scores, they only had a plus 129 points differential. In their other 11 games they actually had a negative points balance!
They have relied heavily on two players to score or create scoring opportunities. Taqele Naiyaravoro and Israel Folau have scored 27 tries between them this season, 37% of the Waratahs tries.
The Highlanders have not had their best season on record, although they have a better winning record than their hosts, having won 10 and lost six, while the ‘Tahs have won just 9. What will concern the Highlanders is that they have conceded 127 points in their last three fixtures since returning from the international break. They conceded 90 points, 45 each against the Crusaders and the Chiefs, and then another 37 while beating the Rebels 43-37 last week. The last result on the back of the Highlanders’ decision to rest the majority of their key players in the Rebels game. Whatever the results, the Highlanders will have noted their defensive problems and worked at sorting them out.
The Waratahs have made one change to their starting XV for their Super Rugby quarterfinal clash against the Highlanders in Sydney on Saturday.
Wing Alex Newsome will make his first start for the Waratahs in three months.
He replaces Cam Clarke in the starting XV. Clarke drops to the bench.
Meanwhile, the Highlanders welcome back several players such as All Blacks Ben Smith, Aaron Smith and Luke Whitelock, with Rob Thompson also in the side.
The Waratahs have won four of their last six fixtures and two of their last three since returning from the international break. The loss to the Brumbies last weekend was a bit unexpected, but might serve to refocus them before the kick-off against the Highlanders.
The Highlanders have struggled a bit recently, as mentioned above they have conceded 127 points in their three fixtures since the international break.
They will also carry some baggage from that 41-12 loss in Sydney, and that will serve as additional motivation this weekend.
Perhaps the most telling factor, however, will be the Highlanders fielding their full strength team, with All Blacks Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, joining their fellow internationals Waisake Naholo, Liam Squire and Lima Sopoaga on the field. Sopoaga, in particular, will be wanting to make a statement as he nears the end of his career as a Highlander. In-form centre Rob Thompson is also back after a week’s rest.
The quality of the returning players adds undoubted experience, strength and firepower to the Highlanders as they focus on the playoffs.
The Highlanders do not play the traditional devil-take-the-hindmost running game of teams like the Hurricanes and the Chiefs, preferring to be more patient on the ball, and also being prepared to play without the ball if that is what it takes. When their defence gets it right, they can be very difficult to beat, especially as they like to suffocate opposition in their own half, waiting for the penalty or loose ball to pounce on and score. Their patience game is backed by the accurate tactical boot of both Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga, with both looking to unleash their kick chasers, where Ben Smith is in a class of his own. The kick-chase strategy is supplemented by a backline that is full of strike runners too.
The Highlanders have a pack of forwards that is very good at the suffocating game. They look to stifle quick ball, slow the breakdowns, and boss the set-pieces. If they can do that, they can draw the sting out of the Waratahs’ back division that includes some dangerous runners in Beale, Naiyaravoro and Folau.
The Waratahs also have an effective kick-chase strategy, with special focus on sending Israel Folau on the chase, where his Aussie Rules skills in the air make him a very real threat. The Highlanders will need to be very accurate and competitive in receiving kicks.
Folau is also a threat on the counter-attack, he will run kicks straight back at the Highlanders unless they employ some accurate and clever kicking. He is not the most accomplished positional fullback and can be caught out of position by well directed kicks, chips and grubbers. He does not like turning on defence either. If the Highlanders can deprive him of midfield ball, his threat will be significantly reduced.
The Highlanders will be targeting the Waratah scrum where the hosts have been ordinary in 2018, while the visitors have had a stable platform against all-comers. If the Highlanders get the upper-hand in the set-pieces it could be a long afternoon for the ‘Tahs.
The Highlander defence has been a better weapon that that of the ‘Tahs, with and 89% tackle success rate and 227 dominant tackles in the season. The Waratahs defence is just slightly worse in terms of tackle successes, 87% successful tackles, but they have fully 100 less dominant tackles, on just 127. Their midfield, in particular Kurtley Beale, have struggled to make their tackles. Beale has the second worst tackle-missed stat in the competition, having missed 39, while Bernard Foley has missed 34 and is 5th worst in the competition. Curtis Rona has missed 15.
This will be the weak link that the Highlanders will be sure to target with some direct running by Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga, and Rob Thompson. They are sure to bring the muscle of Waisake Naholo in on the cut too.
The Waratahs will probably want this game to go wide from as early as possible. They will want to take the ball away from the Highlanders forwards and their loose trio of Whitelock, Squire and Lentjes as much as possible. If they succeed in doing so, and can get Folau into the game on the break, they have a very good chance of forcing the Highlanders to play off the back foot.
However, this is finals rugby, and taking the ball wide early in the game is a risky exercise, especially against the Highlanders who thrice off mistakes.
It is going to be interesting.
On the one side, we have the ‘Tahs with home advantage and the knowledge that they have beaten the Highlanders in Sydney already this year. On the other hand we have a Highlanders team looking for a modicum of revenge, with some rested players of obvious quality returning for this game.
Both teams have their stars, but the Highlanders seem to have just a couple of extras.
The Waratahs are going to miss Michael Hooper.
The Highlanders, by some 7 points.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Alex Newsome, 13 Curtis Rona, 12 Kurtley Beale, 11 Taqele Naiyaravoro, 10 Bernard Foley (captain), 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Michael Wells, 7 Will Miller, 6 Ned Hanigan, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Damien Fitzpatrick, 1 Tom Robertson.
Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Harry Johnson-Holmes, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Tom Staniforth, 20 Brad Wilkin, 21 Jake Gordon, 22 Cameron Clark, 23 Bryce Hegarty.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Kalolo Tuiloma, 19 Shannon Frizell, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Matt Faddes