Randell: Key to Waratahs lies at No 7 position

TAINE RANDELL
Last updated 05:00 06/07/2014
Michael Hooper
Getty Images
UNHERALDED: Waratahs openside Michael Hooper has had a big impact this season.

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The Highlanders are one win from their first playoffs appearance in 12 years - but it's hard to see them getting it today against a quality Waratahs outfit in Sydney.

I'm just hoping my tipping form holds true, and I've got this one wrong too, because it would be a great way to finish off an outstanding season by my old franchise.

But the Waratahs look really good. They've got a big, solid forward pack, an excellent set piece and in Michael Hooper a fantastic openside. Their backline is also their best for yonks.

I like Bernard Foley at No 10, even though he's not one of their stars. He's got game-breakers like Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper outside, and understands he's there to service that backline and complement those X-factor guys.

I know everyone's talking about the matchup between Folau and Ben Smith at fullback as the one to savour in this clash, but I reckon the head-to-head at No 7 between Hooper and Shane Christie is more pivotal.

Both are relatively unheralded No 7s, but they're both having a big impact this season. The Highlanders have struggled for a while because they haven't had a good openside but Christie has been impressive. He's into everything, and provides that link between backs and forwards they haven't had for a number of years.

It's the same with Hooper who's been that vital connection between forwards and backs that's taken the Waratahs to another level in 2014.

Smith and Folau are different players. Folau runs good support lines and scores tries as a result; Smith is more creative and makes a lot happen with his industry.

Outstanding young centre Malakai Fekitoa is another vital cog for the Highlanders. Sure, the two Smiths have been on fire in the backline, but I see Fekitoa and Christie as the game-changers for Jamie Joseph.

You realise how important the centre position is when you don't have one. For the last decade the Highlanders haven't had top-echelon players at 7 and 13. They've got them now and as a result they're contenders again.

Look at the Crusaders. They haven't had a good centre for a while, and haven't been quite the top-notch team in that time.

I'm convinced now openside is the most important forward position, and centre is its equivalent in the backs. You have a high impact at No 13 and you're key on defence, and Fekitoa is both for the Highlanders.

But he's going to have his hands full with Ashley-Cooper who's a big guy, very solid, and has been the heart and soul of the Waratahs for a while.

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What I like about today's clash in Sydney is it's full of very good matchups between different styles of players.

The Waratahs will probably dominate possession, and that's going to test the Highlanders. They've only won twice in Sydney since the competition started, and they're up against the form team.

They've got to rely on what they've done well this season. What's got them where they are is utter determination and they'll need that in spades today.

After an intriguing Friday night clash in Hamilton the Chiefs stay in the playoff hunt and the Hurricanes are probably gone. The first-five matchup was probably the most eagerly awaited, and it was a clear points victory to Aaron Cruden who was a big part of the Chiefs' victory.

Most interesting to me was how the Chiefs have developed their mauling game. Both sides have pretty similar styles - they soak up pressure and then use their excitement machines to capitalise on errors and score.

But the Chiefs relied heavily on their maul as their main piece of variation and it was effective.

This type of mauling was prevalent a decade ago, and technically all New Zealand teams can improve in this area because they're all using the same style.

What tends to happen is the first person goes in and then pulls away to let people fill in from in front of him. It's a safe way of mauling but you're more liable to be broken open early because the maul is not formed properly.

The Chiefs still have a chance but it looks like they've been worked out. If you button back your game-plan in terms of flamboyance and just play a hard, physical style they're vulnerable.

The Canes weren't good enough to do that on Friday night - and paid the price.

- Sunday News

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