The Waratahs travel across to wet and windy Invercargill to face the Highlanders with the two rivals hopes of finals football all but dead and buried after disappointing losses in the penultimate regular season round.
The Waratahs and the Highlander both let golden opportunities slip last weekend in their quests for a semi-final spot. The Tahs were humbled at home by the conference-leading Brumbies while the Highlanders blew a late lead to draw with the Bulls in Dunedin. It left both sides sitting short of the top 8 and requiring a miracle if they were to kit up for some knockout football next weekend.
The Waratahs have won the last two encounters against Aaron Mauger’s men including a famous come from behind semi-final victory, in their last ever game at the Sydney football stadium in 2018.
Perhaps the one positive to come from the fact the Tahs season is on life support is that it saved Daryl Gibson a massive headache and allowing him to avoid serious conjecture and rest his five key Wallabies. As highlighted by the NZ born coach during the week, Friday night’s game is an excellent opportunity for some young, fresh faces to step up and prove they are ready to take over the reins with a number of stalwarts moving on. Harry Johnson-Holmes, Will Miller, and Hugh Sinclair have been handed rare starts in the pack lining up in place of Sekope Kepu, Micheal Hooper and Rob Simmons. It’s a huge night for Mack Mason who gets a chance to atone for his shocker against the Sunwolves earlier this year, with the 22-year-old named at 10, partnering Nick Phipps in the halves. Foketi and Ashley-Cooper remain in the centres, while Alex Newsome will get a chance to impress in his preferred position of fullback in the absence of Kurtley Beale.
Disappointing news for the Highlanders faithful with one of their favourite sons, Ben Smith unfairly robbed of a farewell game having being ruled out with a hamstring injury. Josh McKay will line-up at fullback, while Teihorangi Walden comes into the centres.
Aaron Smith vs Nick Phipps
Waratahs club captain Nick Phipps pulls on his beloved sky blue for the last time when he faces off with old rival Aaron Smith. After 6 years with the Tahs Phipps has opted to join just about everyone else at London Irish in the English Premiership next season. He will leave a lasting legacy as the ultimate competitor who wasn’t the most talented halfback of all time but one whose effort and intensity could never be questioned postgame. Smith, on the other hand, is one of the few Southern Hemisphere veterans who has decided to stay on after the World Cup, much to the relief of Highlanders fans. He will be looking for a big performance leading into the international season, particularly with good friend and longtime rival TJ Perenara biting down at his heels in the race for the All Black 9 jersey.
HIGHLANDERS (15-1): Josh McKay, Waisake Naholo, Rob Thompson, Teihorangi Walden, Tevita Li, Josh Ioane, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, James Lentjes, Liam Squire, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Tyrel Lomax, Liam Coltman, Ayden Johnstone
Reserves: Ash Dixon, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Siate Tokolahi, Josh Dickson, Shannon Frizell, Elliot Dixon, Kayne Hammington, Marty Banks
WARATAHS (15-1): Alex Newsome, Cam Clark, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Lalakai Foketi, Curtis Rona, Mack Mason, Nick Phipps, (c), Michael Wells, Will Miller, Hugh Sinclair, Tom Staniforth, Ned Hanigan, Tom Robertson, Damien Fitzpatrick, Harry Johnson-Holmes
Reserves: Andrew Tuala, Rory O’Connor, Shambeckler Vui, Ryan McCauley, Jed Holloway, Jack Dempsey, Jake Gordon, Tautalatasi Tasi
After a year full of controversy, you get the feeling the Waratahs are desperate to put season 2019 behind them. After watching the Rebels vs Crusaders game last weekend an Aussie team heading across the ditch with an understrength to kiwi side with a point to prove doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence. I get the feeling that perhaps the only thing saving them from being on the wrong end of a cricket score is the weather forecast, with the Highlanders accustomed to playing in pristine conditions under the roof in Dunedin.
Highlanders by 14…