Preview: Waratahs v Highlanders

Fresh off a bye week the Waratahs go right into the fire with a visit of defending champions the Highlanders this Friday in Sydney.

This is actually a battle between the last two champions, with the Waratahs having taken the title the previous year in 2014.

Each side have suffered a loss so far and have ground to make up on on the Brumbies and Chiefs respectively, although the Waratahs face a somewhat steeper task trying to reel in the Canberra-based franchise who have taken 13 points out of 15 so far.

The Highlanders lost their opener but they've never lost their groove, carrying on their title-winning form of 2015 through to the new season.

Squeaking past the Hurricanes was a reality check but there was nothing lucky about defeating the Lions. Give the Highlanders a sniff, especially Aaron and Ben Smith, and they'll put you away as we saw with two quick tries after the break on the way to a comfortable win. Only the Chiefs (by virtue of playing the Kings) have made more clean breaks than the Highlanders so far.

Injuries however have hit them hard, with blockbuster wing Patrick Osborne joining Waisake Naholo on the sidelines along with key lineout forward Joe Wheeler and new signing Luke Whitelock. Testing out their squad depth on the road is never easy.

Also against them is the fact that the Waratahs have won three of the most recent four matches between these sides played in Australia.

That will give Daryl Gibson and his squad some optimism ahead of a blockbuster fixture in Sydney, as the Waratahs continue without the injured Bernard Foley at fly-half.

Kurtley Beale has dazzled during his stint filling in at number ten but with no disrespect to young David Horwitz, the Waratahs are always a greater threat when they can call upon the interlinking play of Foley and Beale in midfield.

Discipline let them down in their last outing thanks to those two first-half yellow cards for Dean Mumm and Will Skelton and their scrum struggled, areas that have to be tightened up on Friday.

The hosts have won seven of their last nine matches against New Zealand opponents in Super Rugby – though both their losses in that span have been against the Highlanders.

The last time these teams met: A battle won by five tries to one in last year's semi-final by the Highlanders. Richard Buckman's try before half-time proved to be essential given the Highlanders were trailing, going in ahead 15-14, before Waisake Naholo, Patrick Osborne and finally a controversial penalty try, for which Jacques Potgieter was yellow carded, sealed a 35-17 win.

Players to watch: Looking trimmer and fitter than ever, this is the kind of game the Waratahs desperately need Will Skelton to put his stamp on in the engine room. Skelton's athleticism and power are well known but to become a mainstay for the Wallabies he needs to show more consistency and to provide some leadership. Friday would be a fine start.

For the Highlandes it's a welcome return for Shane Christie at openside flanker after missing last weekend's match through injury. The champions' co-captain returns to the back row alongside Elliot Dixon and Liam Squire, and in the process should bring plenty of energy to what looks like a busy contest at the breakdown up against Michael Hooper.

Team news: Waratahs head coach Daryl Gibson has made two changes to his side. The two changes are made up front with Wycliff Palu set to have his first start of the season, the backline is unchanged. Palu comes into the starting line up in the number eight jersey and hooker Tolu Latu comes in for the injured Tatafu Polota-Nau, who fractued his arm during the Brumbies match. 

Meanwhile, Christie is one of four changes named by Highlanders head coach Jamie Joseph. Christie comes in at openside flanker for Dan Pryor, who is sidelined with concussion, while Joe Wheeler, also a victim of a head knock, is replaced by Tom Franklin on the blindside. Liam Squire comes in at the back of the scrum for Luke Whitelock who is sidelined with a knee injury, with Patrick Osborne dropping out of the matchday squad due to a hip injury with Ryan Tongia taking his place on the left wing.

Form: The Waratahs opened the year with a comfortable 30-10 bonus point win over the struggling Reds at home in Sydney, before copping a heavy loss to the Brumbies in Canberra in the first big derby of the year between the two Australian Conference frontrunners. The Waratahs have conceded only one try from opposition possession beginning from a lineout, the equal fewest of any team in the competition.

After a 33-31 loss away to the Blues in the opening game of the season the Highlanders have responded by beating the Hurricanes by a point (17-16), and then thrashing the Lions 31-14 last weekend. The Highlanders have won only three of their last 17 matches in Australia, including last year's semi-final.

Prediction: The impact of those injuries to the Highlanders could be comprehensive when you figure than in a game which requires their best talents, they're unable to call on Osborne and Naholo. If the Waratahs pack holds firm, they can pick up a second win of the season. Waratahs by five.

Previous results: 

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
2008: Waratahs won 15-12 in Dunedin

The teams:

Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Matt Carraro, 13 Rob Horne, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 David Dennis, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Tolu Latu, 1 Paddy Ryan
Replacements: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Tom Robertson, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Jed Holloway, 21 Jack Dempsey, 22 Matt Lucas, 23 Reece Robinson

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (cc), 14 Matt Faddes, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Ryan Tongia, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (cc), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Jason Emery

Date: Friday, March 18
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 19:45 local (08:45 GMT)
Referee: Nick Briant
Assistant Referees: James Leckie, Graham Cooper
TMO: Ian Smith