Halfback Nick Phipps has the toughest marking assignment in the NSW Waratahs’ Super Rugby semi-final against the Highlanders and that’s saying something considering their strikepower.
The Highlanders set up a semi-final with the defending champion Waratahs by downing fellow New Zealanders the Chiefs 24-14 in their qualifying final in Dunedin on Saturday.
The hosts had stars all over the park, including All Blacks fullback Ben Smith and electrifying winger Waisake Naholo, who scored both of the Highlanders’ tries.
But for Phipps, the player he will mark at Allianz Stadium on Saturday, slick and slippery All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith, was the man for the Highlanders.
“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.
“I thought Aaron Smith seemed to be the deciding factor in the end there.
“They just took their opportunities better than the Chiefs did.”
Smith was in everything for the Highlanders, who were hosting their first post-season game since 1999.
He created both of Naholo’s tries with terrific runs from scrums and will need to be watched closely.
Meanwhile, Phipps said the Waratahs enjoyed a typically tough “week off” under coach Michael Cheika, after topping the Australian conference.
“We had the Monday off and that was it, he got stuck into us in the back half of the week,” Phipps told Fox Sports.
“He did the same thing last year. He flogged us on Centennial Park again in that semi-final break, and it’s worked really well for us and I think it’s great.”
The Highlanders beat the Waratahs 26-16 in their regular season meeting in Dunedin in March, with Naholo among the tryscorers.
“It’s going to be a great game, it’s finals footy, they are going to be up for it,” said Phipps.
“They haven’t seen a finals series for a while and they’ll be looking forward to the opportunity over here.”