The Waratahs currently have 11 players from their top squad either unavailable or in doubt for Saturday’s derby match against Melbourne at the Sydney Football Stadium.
Last year’s semi-finalists desperately need some results if they’re to stay in contention for a finals spot under the new system – but at the moment they’re outside the cut-off for a wildcard place in the playoffs.
Queensland are streaking the Tahs by 11 competition points at the top of the Australian conference for automatic selection in the finals, while the Crusaders, Highlanders and Sharks are all currently trumping them for one of three wildcards.
However, the silver lining for the Waratahs in a season which is quickly slipping away, is the fact they finish with five of their final seven matches in Sydney.
The Waratahs host the Rebels and Force in the next two weeks, before a bye precedes another home match against the Lions.
After a critical two-match tour to South Africa to face finals competitors the Sharks and Bulls, the Tahs finish with another blockbuster against the Highlanders at the SFS and then local rivals the Brumbies at ANZ.
Captain Phil Waugh says the fortunate run home can help the Waratahs out of their deep hole.
“It’s a big challenge, but history suggests we respond pretty well to the challenges,” he said.
“It’s the start of a run of home games … and history suggests your home games are very important.
“We need to stand up and win this week and then obviously back up against the Force next week.
“I think we generally respond well (to adversity), and the challenge is there to do it again.”
NSW are sweating on the availability of key playmakers Berrick Barnes and Kurtley Beale, who are still in significant doubt.
Barnes completed a contact training session on Tuesday and a decision could be made on his fitness as soon as Wednesday.
The 24-year-old has missed several matches while recovering from concussion and, while he’s been passed medically fit, he must feel comfortable in his role before being given the green light by coach Chris Hickey.
Fellow Wallaby Beale did not train on Tuesday as he battles to recover from lateral ligament damage in his knee, and a call will be made on him later in the week.
The Waratahs mounting injury woes again claimed Phil Waugh, the captain picking up a nasty hamstring tear in the weekend loss to Queensland which will keep him out at least two weeks.
Australian representatives Drew Mitchell, Rob Horne and Wycliff Palu are also on the NSW injury list.
Hickey says the Waratahs can have no excuse against the Rebels or in their run into the finals.
“When I look at the team we’re putting out this week, it’s a strong Super Rugby side and they’ll get the job done this week and in the next month,” said Hickey who will likely wait until Thursday to finalise his squad.
“We’re only at the halfway mark and (the home games) will be very important in the result.”
In good news for the team, Wallabies hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau is on track to face the Rebels after a head knock forced him from the field against the Reds.
Pat McCutcheon will come into Waugh’s No.7 jersey, while Chris Alcock will come onto the bench.