NSW Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson has asked his players – and returning second-rower Will Skelton in particular – to match the intensity of the under-threat Melbourne Rebels when the teams meet in Sydney on Sunday.
Gibson has recalled Wallabies pair Skelton and halfback Nick Phipps in four changes to the starting XV ahead of a potential banana skin match for NSW.
On paper, the Waratahs should secure their fourth win of the season, however lingering speculation about whether the Rebels will be booted from Super Rugby next year has Gibson on edge.
“The Rebels will be extremely galvanised by the troubles they face and the uncertainty around their team,” Gibson said. “I expect them to fully come out and express that and for us we’ve got to match that intensity with our own.”
The selection of Skelton in the second row is a clear indication Gibson has put his faith in the big ball carrier to pick up where he left off following an impressive second half against the Blues a fortnight ago.
Skelton’s fitness and work-rate has been a talking point in the last two seasons but Gibson is confident he can be a key figure for the bulk of the contest.
“Certainly I’d like him for the full 80 [minutes],” Gibson said. “If he can produce what he produced in 40 minutes [against the Blues]; 18 carries in 40 minutes and probably what I thought was his best game for a couple of years … he was outstanding. We need more from him and we need more from other people too.”
Said Skelton of his recall: “I’m very excited to start again. The Rebels are a tough outfit and they haven’t had much success this year so they’ll be hungry and ready to fire so we’ve got to bring our A-game.”
Phipps and Jake Gordon have chopped as changed as the team’s starting halfbacks throughout the year, however Gibson has opted go with the 52-Test Wallaby for the clash at Allianz Stadium.
“He’s worked the hardest of any player in the team to get back to what he was previously doing,” Gibson said. “He’s been putting a lot of hours in behind the scenes, really working hard at his game and that is starting to pay for him.
“Nick gets a start with an impressive performance off the bench performance against the Blues.”
As well as Skelton and Phipps, Taqele Naiyaravoro returns on the wing in place of Reece Robinson, while Michael Wells comes is as the starting No.8.
“I’m really searching for that winger to nail down that spot,” Gibson said. “I didn’t think Reece did in the last game. Taqele previous to that [injury] he was our pick there and so he gets an opportunity to really nail down that spot.”
Hooker Hugh Roach has also been replaced on the bench by Damien Fitzpatrick.
The Waratahs have beaten the Rebels in 10 of the 12 outings between the two sides and got out of jail last time in round five when they trailed by 19 points at half-time before recording a terrific 32-25 victory.
Meanwhile, NSW are one defeat away from setting the record for the most consecutive home losses in the club’s history.
Asked whether he thought fans would come through the turnstiles on Sunday despite poor results this year, Gibson said: “The fans that will turn up are the ones that want to be here supporting the team.
“We need to be unbeatable for the next five games, it’s as simple as that.”
Waratahs team: Tom Robertson, Tolu Latu, Sekope Kepu, Dean Mumm, Will Skelton, Ned Hanigan, Michael Hooper, Michael Wells, Nick Phipps, Bernard Foley, Cam Clark, David Horwitz, Rob Horne, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Israel Folau. Reserves: Damien Fitzpatrick, Paddy Ryan, Angus Ta’avao, Dave McDuling, Jed Holloway, Jake Gordon, Bryce Hegarty, Irae Simone.