Preview: Waratahs v Rebels

The Waratahs will hope they can back up last week's win and start to advance up the Australian table when they host the Rebels in Sydney on Sunday.

Despite the 27-3 loss to the defending champion Highlanders last weekend at AAMI Park, the Rebels are three points clear of the Waratahs in second place in the Australian Group. The Waratahs are entering into their second consecutive Australian derby after their come-from-behind 15-13 victory over the Reds at Suncorp Stadium.

The Rebels have only claimed one victory against the Waratahs, back in 2013, in a hard fought 24-22 battle in Melbourne. The 2014 champions have triumphed in seven of the previous eight encounters. The biggest winning margin was in their title winning year when they won 41-19 in Melbourne.

A win for the home side will certainly keep their hopes alive of making a play-off spot. However on the stats front the playing field is fairly evenly matched with the Rebels getting the better of the Sydney side in a few categories – the most notable one being that the visitors have beaten 21 more defenders than the hosts. The Melbourne side will hope that they can recall their Round Two second-half performance against the Bulls for the full 80 minutes, but with the amount of attacking practice that the Waratahs got last week against the Highlanders they will want to convert their possession and territory into more than just a shoddy penalty conversion.

The last time these teams met: A knock-on from Rebels scrum-half Luke Burgess in the 84th minute handed the Waratahs a much needed victory as the 18-16 win helped them to advance to within four points of the table topping Brumbies. The visitors were given some hope after two late second-half Jack Debreczeni penalties allowed them to come within a try of overtaking the defending champions, but the 74th minute try from Bryce Hegarty was enough to snatch a victory for the Sydneysiders.

Players to watch: For the home side the Wallaby number 15, Israel Folau, will definitely be watched closely by the Rebels. The full-back has made some valuable metres beating defenders and breaking the line with ease. His flair and natural stepping ability will be called on in this encounter. Captain Michael Hooper will be hoping to continue his stellar performances in dominating the contact and also his ability to effect the turnover. 

Nic Stirzaker gets the nod ahead of the in-form Ben Meehan with the later being named on the bench. Stirzaker will also assume the captaincy role as he hopes to continue his fine form from Round Five. Dom Shipperley was impressive against the in-form Highlanders speedster Pat Osborne. The 25-year-old winger stepped up and made some telling runs despite his side not crossing the whitewash.

Team news: Waratahs head coach Daryl Gibson has made four changes to his starting line-up. The team's highest-ever capped player, Benn Robinson and rampaging hooker, Hugh Roach have been brought into the starting squad for the first time in 2016, linking up with Angus Ta'avao in the front-row. David Horwitz and Matt Carraro move back into the XV in place of Kurtley Beale and Rob Horne respectively, who have both been ruled out with injury this week.

Meanwhile, captain Nic Stirzaker will lead the Melbourne Rebels for the first time with a return to the starting XV against the Waratahs on Sunday. Stirzaker's inclusion is one of three changes to the Rebels run-on team with Reece Hodge also getting the start at full-back while Cam Crawford replaces the injured Tom English on the wing. Crawford will make his first start of the season after successfully returning from a hamstring injury against the Highlanders. Sefa Naivalu is named on the bench as he returns from a broken leg he suffered in Round 16 last year.

Form: Two victories, two losses and a bye in Round Three, sees the home side in third position – three points adrift from second placed the Rebels – on the Australian conference. Both victories were against bottom seeded – the Reds – in Round One and Four. They were however thumped 32-15 by the Brumbies in Canberra and despite a brave fight back – in Round Four – from the 2014 champions they suffered a 30-26 defeat to the Highlanders in Sydney.

Victories over the Force, the Reds and newcomers the Sunwolves sees the Melbourne side find themselves in second position, only four points behind top seeded the Brumbies on the Australian conference. A brave effort in Round Two against the Bulls saw them deny the Pretoria side a try scoring bonus point in their 45-25 defeat in South Africa. The sterling defence from the Highlanders in Melbourne restricted the Rebels to only three points on the scoreboard in the 27-3 loss to the Dunedin side.   

Prediction: Even with their current form the Rebels will not be able to match the star-studded Waratahs. The Waratahs to win by seven.

Previous results:

2015: Waratahs won 18-16 in Sydney
2015: Waratahs won 38-28 in Melbourne
2014: Waratahs won 41-19 in Melbourne
2014: Waratahs won 32-8 in Sydney
2013: Rebels won 22-24 in Melbourne
2013: Waratahs won 31-26 in Sydney
2012: Waratahs won 30-21 in Sydney
2012: Waratahs won 35-19 in Melbourne

The teams:

Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Matt Carraro, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Jed Holloway, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Jack Dempsey, 5 David Dennis, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 Hugh Roach, 1 Benn Robinson
Replacements: 16 James Hilterbrand, 17 Paddy Ryan, 18 Tom Robertson, 19 Will Skelton, 20 Sam Lousi, 21 Wycliff Palu, 22 Matt Lucas, 23 Andrew Kellaway 

Rebels: 15 Reece Hodge, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Cam Crawford, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Nic Stirzaker (c), 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Sean McMahon, 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Scott Fuglistaller, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Dan Hawkins, 23 Sefa Naivalu

Date: Sunday, April 3
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 16:05 local (06:05 GMT)
Referee: Andrew Lees
Assistant Referees: Rohan Hoffmann, Michael Hogan
TMO: George Ayoub