The Highlanders can expect to see plenty of NSW Waratahs star fullback Israel Folau popping up in the second playmaking role, with the reigning Super Rugby champions set to mix things up at No.12 in the absence of Kurtley Beale.
Coach Michael Cheika was forced to put a line through Beale’s name a couple of days out from the blockbuster semi-final at Allianz Stadium on Saturday due to a quadriceps injury.
Beale failed a fitness test on Thursday, with Cheika opting for Matt Carraro to take his spot over winger Rob Horne for the clash with the Otago-based side.
Horne spends plenty of time drifting into No.12 when Beale is playing and the left winger will shift to the midfield against the Highlanders too but he won’t be the only one jumping in for Carraro.
“Obviously Matt is not the same type of player as Kurtley is but Israel has been picking up a bit of that slack around the second playmaker role,” Cheika said on Friday.
“We just share it around a little bit more as opposed to it being two dedicated guys and go from there.”
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph claimed Beale’s omission doesn’t change too much for his side but admitted he was a huge loss for the Waratahs.
“We’re really an us-focused team and that’s why we can play consistently, because we put a lot our preparation into ourselves,” he said.
The Waratahs are aiming to become the first Australian team to defend a Super Rugby title, while the Highlanders are playing in a semi-final for the first time since 2002.
Joseph doesn’t think that will be factor on Saturday night.
“What relevance does a team 10, 15 or how many years ago have to this team? Little I’d say … ,” said Joseph, whose side beat the star-studded Chiefs last weekend.
Joseph’s men finished the regular season on more points than the Waratahs and beat Cheika’s team when they met in Dunedin in March.
They have enjoyed plenty of success on the back of hard work from a forward pack of lesser-known players, who provide a solid base for the likes of dynamic halfback Aaron Smith and lethal wingers Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osborne to let rip.
The Highlanders expect possession could be in short supply against the Waratahs.
NSW have kicked less than any other team this season and also given away the fewest turnovers – both of which add to their dominance of possession in most games.
Conversely, the Highlanders are among the most kick-happy of sides, often content to defend for long periods before striking quickly off turnovers through the likes of try-scoring ace Naholo.
The Waratahs boast a bigger pack than the Highlanders, and Joseph feels that could work in his team’s favour.
“It’s hard to carry big carcasses around the track, especially when you play at speed,” he said.
“I think if we are successful in moving the ball quickly and keeping the game at a reasonable tempo, then, like last week, guys are going to wilt at the end.”