Waratahs eyeing prized Kiwi scalp

Darren Walton
Skipper Michael Hooper says the Waratahs can't afford anymore yellow card issues

The NSW Waratahs are hoping to kick back clear of their Australian conference rivals with a season-turning Super Rugby triumph over the Highlanders on Saturday night.

Despite suffering three straight losses to invite the Melbourne Rebels back into the playoff picture, the Waratahs believe they are peaking nicely six rounds out from the finals after pushing the defending champion Crusaders to the brink last start.

Captain Michael Hooper is still smarting after letting the Crisaders off the hook from 29-0 up and has highlighted the importance of not gifting the Highlanders a leg-up through ill-discipline at Allian Stadium.

The Waratahs played a quarter of last Saturday's match in Christchurch a man down with halfback Nick Phipps and winger Taqele Naiyaravoro yellow carded either side of halftime.

"We've got to have 15 men on the field, particularly against top teams, and they made us pay on the weekend," Hooper said at Friday's captain's run.

The skipper admits his side needs to strike a balance, pointing out a first-half Naiyaravoro intercept try helped the Tahs to their 29-0 lead before he was sin-binned attempting another with the match in the balance after the break.

"So you want to encourage the skill of being smart with it. It's frustrating because it was on the back of another penalty we'd already given away," the flanker said Naiyaravoro's dismissal.

"So that compounded it and I think that's just a bit of anxiety of where we were at in the game and knowing the Crusaders were coming.

"Maybe we thought about that rather than what was working for us in the first half."

After collecting just two bonus points in three games, the Waratahs have Melbourne breathing down their necks just one competition point adrift of the Australian conference lead following their late escape against the Brumbies.

"The Rebels showed some real grit there last week to fight back against the Brumbies," Hooper said.

"They've always been a team that was going to be strong this year.

"So every game is important for us now. We're at that point of the season where it's really pointy and it's an opportunity this week.

"The Rebels, it's a bye weekend, so it's an opportunity to get a bit of space there.

"But the key for us is confidence and momentum. If we get that, it will do us well."

In a sign of respect for the Waratahs, who are trying to break the Australian teams' 39-match losing streak to New Zealand opposition, the Highlanders have opted not to rest All Blacks fullback Ben Smith as planned.

The aerial battle between Smith and Waratahs fullback Israel Folau will be decisive.