The Hurricanes qualified for the inaugural Rebel Sport Super 14 playoffs with a round to spare by beating the Reds 26-22 last Friday, making the top four for the second year in succession and for the third time in the previous four years.
They travel to Sydney on Friday with the aim of earning an historic first ever home semi-final in Wellington, possibly against the Waratahs again, who are currently one point ahead of the third placed Hurricanes. Both sides enter the last round with nine wins from twelve games played, with an extra bonus point the difference.
There are two changes to the Hurricanes starting fifteen for this final round-robin fixture. Jimmy Gopperth replaces first five-eighth David Holwell, who has been ruled out with an infected knee, while John Schwalger trades places with Joe McDonnell at loosehead prop. Taranaki centre Lifeimi Mafi comes in to the 22-man match squad for the first time, having replaced the injured Conrad Smith in the 2006 Hurricanes team.
Six Hurricanes players will be making their thirteenth straight appearances in the starting side on Saturday. Lome Fa’atau, Andrew Hore, Chris Masoe, Ma’a Nonu, Neemia Tialata and Piri Weepu have started in every game this season.
Fa’atau heads in to this weekend as the competition’s joint leading try scorer with nine tries, alongside the Brumbies’ Stirling Mortlock and the Force’s Scott Staniforth. Hore’s six tries puts him seventh equal on the try scoring list and the most by a forward, while lock Jason Eaton scored his fourth try in his debut season against the Reds.
The Waratahs, who lost 33-37 to the Chiefs last week, are unbeaten in five matches at home this year, where their strength has been in their tight defence. In these five games they have conceded just 45 points, while scoring 187.
In last year’s clash between the two sides the Hurricanes prevailed 26-24 in Wellington, with Waratahs right wing, now fullback Peter Hewat scoring two tries. Hewat, who faces Hurricanes fullback Isaia Toeava at the back, again looms as a key figure. This year he has scored 173 points, putting him second on the Super 14 points scorers list, behind Dan Carter (179 points).
Other key match-ups include the respective halfback-first five-eighth battle, where Weepu faces Waratahs captain Chris Whitaker. Both number nines possess crisp passing and an eye for a gap. Gopperth is also likely to meet a similar styled player in Mat Rogers. Both have explosive running games and will look to unleash the power and pace of their backlines.
Like Hore, Waratahs hooker Adam Freier relishes the tight exchanges, and their tussle will be a keen one, while the Hurricanes loose forwards meet a well-balanced Waratahs loose forward trio.