They’ve had two agonising losses and Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson says his side needs to take the next step against the Highlanders.
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The third in four consecutive trans-Tasman matches is a pivotal one for the Waratahs, after showing they have the ability to rattle Kiwi sides, in close losses to the Blues and Crusaders.
“That’s a step we need to take as a team, in terms of we’ve shown we can compete and there’s things that came out of the last game that we’re going to take some really good lessons from,” he said.
“We need to take that step as a team and towards really nailing one of those wins, those close wins that we’ve been coming up short.”
Gibson said they needed to make sure they didn’t give the Highlanders free possession on Saturday night, something that cost them at times against the Crusaders.
“We kept the ball in against the Crusaders and gave them more possession,” he said.
“Particularly our yellow card management, when we were down at different periods, down a player.
“We felt we could’ve controlled that better as game managers and probably identified eight kicks that remained in-field that needed to be kicked out.
“There’s a good lesson for us and as we look back, we look at the Lions game, we’re improving, Blues – improving – Crusaders – improving – and we really need to take that step and nail these close games.”
The Highlanders pose a different threat to other New Zealand teams, relying heavily on kicks, something that has gotten the better of the Waratahs in previous encounters, and Gibson said he was expecting the same this weekend.
“They obviously play the game a little bit differently to a lot, with their attacking kicks,” he said.
“They’re really going to probe, really look for spaces and use their kicking assault as a tactical weapon.”
Gibson has stuck to his halfback rotation policy, with Jake Gordon to start against the Highlanders.
Gordon was shifted to the bench for the first time in 2018 for last weekend’s clash with the Crusaders, but Gibson said he was planning to swap he and Nick Phipps around in a block of trans-Tasman matches.
“I talked very clearly at the start of this four-game New Zealand block that that’s what we’re going to do and I’m going to continue that ,” he said.
“So that means Nick will come back next week.”
Tom Staniforth will also replace lock Ned Hanigan in the starting side, with the latter out for at least a month with a knee injury, giving rookie Ryan McCauley a chance off the bench as well.
Hanigan is set to miss at least four weeks with a knee injury that ended his night early against the Crusaders, putting him in doubt for the first Wallabies Test next month.
Hanigan suffered a medial ligament injury in a cleanout in Christchurch, leaving Australia’s no. 6 stocks worryingly low, leading to reports that Michael Cheika is looking to fast-track Crusaders flanker Pete Samu into a gold jersey for June.
“At this stage, (Ned is) four to six weeks. He’s probably more on the four side, which is really positive and we just hope to get him back,” Gibson said.
Tolu Latu will also have a chance to throw his hat in the Wallabies’ hooker race as well, in his first inclusion since the Waratahs’ round four loss to the Jaguares.
“Part of his reintroduction is around we feel he’s doing the necessary work, he’s doing his throwing, he’s playing consistently and we’ve had pretty consistent (selections) with Roach and Fitzpatrick so we see it as an opportunity for him to again contribute and see what he can do,” Gibson said.
“Certainly ,there is an opportunity there (to push for Test spots).
“I’m not sure what Chiek’s thoughts are but every hooker in the country know there’s an opportunity to play well and potentially get that call.”
In a positive for the Waratahs, Jack Dempsey has returned to training with the team but is still not expected to play this season, after a hamstring injury suffered in October last year.
“The other positive news is Jack Dempsey has sort of started back in with the team, so that’s really good for him and his progress towards becoming fully fit,” Gibson said.
“He’s still a long way off…but that’s a really positive mood for him and he’s shown progress towards being able to rejoin parts of training.
“We’re not holding on to that hope (of him returning this season). It’s more around him getting back to full fitness.”
The Waratahs take on the Highlanders on Saturday night, kicking off at 7:45pm AEST, LIVE on FOX SPORTS and via RUGBY.com.au RADIO. Buy tickets here.
IN: Tolu Latu, Ryan McCauley
OUT: Hugh Roach, Ned Hanigan
1. Tom Robertson
2. Damien Fitzpatrick
3. Sekope Kepu
4. Tom Staniforth
5. Rob Simmons
6. Will Miller
7. Michael Hooper
8. Michael Wells
9. Jake Gordon
10. Bernard Foley
11. Taqele Naiyaravoro
12. Kurtley Beale
13. Curtis Rona
14. Cam Clark
15. Israel Folau
16. Tolu Latu
17. Harry Johnson-Holmes
18. Shambeckler Vui
19. Ryan McCauley
20. Jed Holloway
21. Nick Phipps
22. Lalakai Foketi
23. Bryce Hegarty