The first Australian derby of 2016 sees last year’s semi-finalists take on a former champion in transition when the Waratahs host the Reds in Sydney.
Two years on from lifting the Super Rugby title the Waratahs have a new head coach in Daryl Gibson and a new captain in the highly respected Michael Hooper, as the Sydney franchise head into a new campaign without a host of familiar faces but still with a strong core of stars.
They can also head into Saturday’s game with a real degree of confidence, given that the Waratahs have won each of their last four matches against the Reds spanning the last two seasons, and they’ve restricted them to five points for less in each of those games.
2015 won’t be a year the Reds look back on fondly. Off-field distractions, including the future of stars like Will Genia and Quade Cooper, along with the drugs scandal surrounding big-name signing Karmichael Hunt, all dented their aspirations.
Now a youthful squad looks even younger, with a head coach in place in the shape of Richard Graham for whom the only way is up after nearly losing his job.
This year feels like another season to blood young prospects and unearth the next wave of talent to take the Reds back to the summit of Super Rugby, despite the blockbuster signing of Japan’s Ayumu Goromaru, whose trusty boot will come in handy. Unfortunately that means there might be some bumps and bruises along the way too.
The last time these teams met: The season couldn’t end fast enough for the Reds as they rounded out 2015 in Sydney with a 31-5 defeat, conceding four tries. A forgettable first half concluded with the Waratahs leading 3-0 before they finally clicked into gear with tries from Dave Dennis, Jacques Potgieter, Brendan McKibbin and Dean Mumm, all converted by Foley. Quade Cooper’s 77th-minute consolation score marked a farewell to the Reds after years of service while having no impact on the result.
Players to Watch: Having had off-season surgery on an ankle injury which limited his displays at the Rugby World Cup, Israel Folau is now ready to come back better than ever. Folau led the competition last year in carries (231), metres made (1,677) and offloads (38) during what was regarded as a subdued year for Wallabies full-back. If that’s the case, imagine him fully fit.
Cooper is gone and the Reds now must put their faith in a new face at number ten, 21-year-old Jake McIntyre, who was exposed to the competition for the first time last season. McIntyre did enough to earn praise from Will Genia last season based on how he performed when called upon, but now the Reds will look to him for leadership and composure in the most important of positions.
Team news: Three players are set to make their debut for the Waratahs, including Test-capped All Black Zac Guildford on the wing, New South Wales rugby pathways star David Horwitz at inside centre, and former Blues prop, Angus Ta’avao.
Head coach Richard Graham has made three changes to the side which played the Brumbies in a trial match two weeks ago – with injuries forcing two of those as Curtis Browning and Hendrik Tui come in. Henry Taefu and Eto Nabuli make their Super Rugby debuts in the Reds backline.
Form: A high-scoring loss to the Highlanders rounded off the Waratahs’ pre-season action, going down 40-35, after a win over the Brumbies and then a loss to the Chiefs over in New Zealand as Daryl Gibson ran the rule over his players. Also, the Waratahs have won 10 of their last 12 matches against fellow Australian teams in Super Rugby and not since Round 5, 2014 have they been beaten by an Australian team that wasn’t the Force
Consecutive defeats to the Crusaders (3-31) and Brumbies (18-31) for the Reds are far from positive, but then again reading too much into pre-season results is always a risk. Interestingly, none of the Reds’ last 11 games against fellow Australian opposition have seen a losing bonus point secured by either side (W4, L7).
Prediction: The Waratahs should get off to a winning start with a bonus point ahead of their huge trip to Canberra in Round 2 to face the Brumbies. Waratahs by 16.
2015: Waratahs won 31-5 in Sydney
2015: Waratahs won 23-5 in Brisbane
2014: Waratahs won 34-3 in Brisbane
2014: Waratahs won 32-5 in Sydney
2013: Reds won 14-12 in Sydney
2013: Reds won 25-17 in Brisbane
2012: Reds won 32-16 in Brisbane
2012: Reds won 25-21 in Sydney
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Matt Carraro, 13 Rob Horne, 12 David Horwitz, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Kurtley Beale, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Jed Holloway, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 David Dennis, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Paddy Ryan
Replacements: 16 Tolu Latu, 17 Benn Robinson, 18 Jeremy Tilse, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Jack Dempsey, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Bryce Hegarty, 23 Reece Robinson
Reds: 15 Karmichael Hunt, 14 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Henry Taefu, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Jake McIntyre, 9 Nick Frisby, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Curtis Browning, 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 Rob Simmons(c), 4 Cadeyrn Neville, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 Saia Fainga’a, 1 Ben Daley
Replacements: 16 Andrew Ready, 17 Sef Fa’agase, 18 Sam Talakai, 19 Ben Matwijow, 20 Michael Gunn, 21 Scott Gale, 22 Sam Greene, 23 Ayumu Goromaru
Date: Saturday, February 27
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Kick-off: 19:40 local (08:40 GMT, 21:40 NZST, 10:40 SAST)
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Nicholas Berry (Australia), James Leckie (Australia)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)