Wilson: Super clash of the fullbacks awaits

JEFF WILSON
Last updated 05:00 06/07/2014
Ben Smith
ROBYN EDIE/Fairfax NZ
BREAKING FREE: Highlanders fullback Ben Smith will go head to head with Wallabies rival Israel Folau today.

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As much as I'm looking forward to today's clash in Sydney between two of the form teams of Super Rugby, it's the match-up within the match-up that I'm most anticipating.

Yes, there's a lot on the line when the competition-leading Waratahs host the upstart Highlanders in Sydney. The Aussies could clinch home playoff advantage with the 11th victory of their outstanding season; and the Highlanders are on the cusp of their first playoff appearance since 2002.

But it's the head-to-head at fullback, between hometown hero Israel Folau and the on-fire Ben Smith, that I'll be watching intently. It's the two best fullbacks in world rugby going head to head and should be a cracking contest.

This is a big call, but I've got Smith as a better all-round footballer than Folau - and that's saying something.

There are still some areas Folau needs to improve and at times he can wait for the game to come to him. Smith always seems to be in the thick of the action.

One thing we do know with Folau is he's got a fantastic nose for the tryline and has great offloading ability. With ball in hand there are not many better.

But Smith's game right now has no weaknesses. He's superb under the high ball, his kicking and option-taking are superb, he's a creator and a finisher on attack and his workrate is off the charts.

This should be a great individual match-up, made more favourable because at fullback you know they're both going to get their opportunities to shine.

In a way their underdog status sits perfectly with these Highlanders. They'll love that once again nobody is giving them much of a chance. This is similar to when they went to Durban and stunned the Sharks in the upset of the season.

I'm sure they'll quietly fancy their chances, but they'll need to be wary of the Waratahs' attack which has been of a consistently high standard. The Highlanders' challenge will be to slow down a very efficient backline behind a strong pack, with two quality players in Wycliff Palu and Michael Hooper in the loose.

I get the feeling the contest will be won or lost up front, and if the Highlanders can get parity there they can win. They have the class acts in the Smiths and Malakai Fekitoa in their backline, and the complementary pieces around them, but it's all about numbers 1-5 measuring up.

Another edge for the Highlanders is at halfback. Aaron Smith's strength is his pass, and there's a confidence, speed and flair about him that's a big part of what they're doing.

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Nick Phipps is a more efficient type of halfback, and relies on doing the fundamentals well. He does a good job organising his forwards, but you won't see him break the game open as much as Smith.

The other marquee match-up is at centre where Adam Ashley-Cooper will be a massive challenge for Fekitoa. The Wallaby is a quality performer and Fekitoa will have to be on top of his game defensively.

Fekitoa's ability as a line-breaker and game-breaker has been a constant. But he'll find it tough breaking down a very good Waratahs defence. He'll need to work hard and counter-attack might present his best chances.

But we saw last week how much he's grown from being in the All Black environment. He's added an offload and defensively you can see him really working things out.

Expect a battle at No 8 where Palu and Nasi Manu are both so important.

We all knew Palu had this type of season in him if he could just stay on the field and he's benefited from his guys up front allowing him to do what he does well.

Both No 8s are very similar: they both get gain-line, both deal well with pressure at the back of the scrum and if they get an opportunity to attack off set piece they're both difficult to stop near the line.

The Highlanders have two shots at the victory they need to break their playoff drought, but won't want to go to Christchurch next week having to win. If they take care of business today then the playoffs take care of themselves.

They've come this far with a pretty clear mentality, and now it's about one more big effort. This is the best Highlanders season in a long time, but there's still one more step to take.

Today presents that opportunity.

- Sunday Star Times

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