Ben Smith can’t speak highly enough of NSW Waratahs opposing fullback Israel Folau, who will be firmly in the Highlanders’ crosshairs throughout Saturday’s Super Rugby semi-final in Sydney.
The clash of arguably the world’s premier attacking No.15s is a crucial element of the game which pits the defending champions at home to a Highlanders team riding a wave of momentum.
The visitors have won five of their past six games, all by double-figure margins, and are one win short of booking their first appearance in a final since a lone failed visit in 1999.
It’s similar for the Waratahs, whose four wins from their past five games have all been sizeable.
Smith says analysis has highlighted the influence of former rugby league weapon Folau, who can prise open a defensive line in numerous ways.
“He’s massive for their game; they get a lot of momentum through him,” Smith told NZ Newswire.
“He can offload because he’s a big man but he can glide through defences 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 at the moment and we’ll have to stop him.”
Folau’s 1606 metres run is the most in this year’s competition, well clear of second-placed Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo (1310m).
That pair, and Smith, are also high in other categories such as clean breaks and defenders beaten, suggesting an open affair awaits.
The Highlanders will look for a similar inspirational moment to that produced by centre Malakai Falakai when the Highlanders beat the Waratahs 26-19 in March in Dunedin.
Falakai stripped Folau of possession in a jolting tackle, before sending Naholo clear for a long-range try as the hosts compiled 26 unanswered points during the middle stages.
Smith said the Waratahs had improved considerably since then, matching the form that carried them to a maiden title last year.
He said his team were only training lightly this week to rest weary bodies and would cross the Tasman a day out from the game, 24 hours later than usual.
That is in an attempt to improve a poor record in Sydney, where they feel they have suffered through poor preparation.
The Highlanders’ only two wins from nine visits have been by one point, while the Waratahs have pulled off big victories in their past three Sydney showdowns.