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Super Rugby semifinal: Waratahs aim to slow down Highlanders

June 25, 2015

SYDNEY (AP) — New South Wales hopes to slow down the fast-paced Highlanders in Saturday’s Super Rugby semifinal, and attack coach Daryl Gibson figures the outdoor match at Sydney Football Stadium might just help them achieve that.

Gibson said the Highlanders were conditioned to playing on a fast surface under the roof of their home ground in Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island.

“We need to try and put the brakes on them to try and slow them down, and try and dictate the tempo of the game that we want to play,” Gibson said. “The ground out here is going to slow them down a bit and so we certainly don’t fear their style, but we know we’re in for a good challenge.”

The Waratahs had a setback Thursday when playmaker Kurtley Beale was ruled out of the squad due to a quadriceps injury after only managing a brief jog at training. His place has been taken by Matt Carraro, a last-minute replacement for Beale in the last regular-season game of the year.

The Highlanders named an almost identical starting XV to the side that beat the Chiefs — the only change being James Lentjes replacing the injured Dan Pryor on the openside flank.

The defending champion Waratahs received a bye in the first round of the six-team playoffs after finishing in the top two in the standings. The Highlanders beat the Hamilton-based Chiefs 24-14 at Dunedin in an all-New Zealand match last weekend.

In the other semifinal match the top-ranked Hurricanes, who also had last weekend off, play the Australian conference’s ACT Brumbies, who beat the Cape Town-based Stormers 39-19 last weekend to eliminate the only South African team in the playoffs. That match will be played in the New Zealand capital Wellington.

The semifinal winners will meet in the Aug. 4 final at the home of the highest-ranked qualifier.

The Highlanders have won five of their past six matches and another victory would secure their spot in the final for the first time since 1999, when they lost a New Zealand-derby to the Canterbury Crusaders. The Waratahs have won four of their past five.

Last week, winger Waisake Naholo starred for the Highlanders, scoring both his team’s tries. New South Wales scrumhalf Nick Phipps will line up against All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith, who set up both of Naholo’s tries with breaking runs from scrums in their win over the Chiefs.

“I thought it was a great game ... both teams were having a real crack and it was on a knife’s edge for a lot of the game,” Phipps said of the Highlanders-Chiefs match. “I thought Aaron Smith seemed to be the deciding factor.”

The Highlanders beat the Waratahs 26-16 in their only regular-season meeting this year in Dunedin in March, with Naholo among the try scorers.

Gibson said some of the Waratahs’ leading players were coming into late-season form.

“You’ve seen Israel Folau over the last two or three weeks really come into his own,” Gibson said. “We’ve got a number of players who are coming close to their best form and you need that in a finals series.”

Opposing fullback Ben Smith says the Highlanders have to stymie Folau. Smith and Folau are two of the best attacking No. 15s in the sport.

“He’s massive for their game, they get a lot of momentum through him,” Smith said. “He can offload because he’s a big man, but he can glide through defenses just as easily.

“They try and run a lot of their plays off the back of him, and why wouldn’t they? He’s one of the most dangerous players in world rugby.”

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