Waratahs aiming to bring Highlanders down to earth

The Waratahs rode to their maiden title on the back of the most potent attack in the competition last year and will back their scoring prowess in Saturday’s semi-final, even if they have not hit quite the same heights this season.


The Highlanders could not hope to be heading to the Sydney Football Stadium in better shape after beating fellow New Zealand side the Waikato Chiefs last weekend to win their first playoff match since 1999.

That match highlighted the dual threat posed by the Highlanders with their uncompromising forward pack subduing the twice-champion Chiefs before the Aaron Smith-inspired backline finished them off.

All Blacks scrumhalf Smith is in the best form of his career and with winger Waisake Naholo, centre Malakai Fekitoa and full back Ben Smith among those lining up behind him, the Highlanders have a backline that could trouble any defence.

The Waratahs will aim to nullify Smith’s threat by cutting off his supply of ball and, failing that, by slowing down the rate at which the Highlanders recycle.

The physicality of the Waratahs pack and their ability to dominate, or at least compete, at the breakdown has been the touchstone of their season so far.

When the forwards show up, as they did when they defeated the then unbeaten Wellington Hurricanes in April, the Waratahs look a very good side indeed.

When they do not, as in their home defeat to South Africa’s Stormers a week earlier, they can be seriously lacklustre.

Losing centre Kurtley Beale, who alternates at first receiver with flyhalf Bernard Foley, to a quadricep injury was definitely a blow but Wallabies fullback Israel Folau appears to be hitting form just at the right time.

At centre, Adam Ashley-Cooper will not want to draw down the curtain on his long Waratahs career yet, while right wing Taqele Naiyaravoro is further proof that Fiji builds powerful and pacy wingers like few other countries.

Waratahs coach Michael Cheika is a great believer that all 23 players in the matchday squad can have a major influence on the result and it might be his Wallabies-laden bench that ultimately swings a tight contest in the home side’s favour.

The Highlanders finished the regular season with one more point than the Waratahs but the conference system gave Cheika’s side a home advantage they will not want to waste in front of a crowd of around 30,000.

The Hurricanes host ACT Brumbies in another trans-Tasman clash earlier on Saturday to decide the other finalist.

(Editing by John O’Brien)