Sydney - Wallabies Test halfback Luke Burgess is under threat of losing his Waratahs starting spot against the Chiefs at the Sydney Football Stadium on Friday night while Wycliff Palu is in line to regain his No.8 position.
While the Waratahs management on Monday suggested there might be a line-up unchanged from the one that defeated the Hurricanes 26-22 in Wellington on Saturday, it is known NSW selectors are seriously considering starting back-up No.9 Brett Sheehan against a similarly combative Chiefs halfback Brendon Leonard.
There are concerns the All Blacks representative could cause problems by sniping around the breakdown and scrumbase, requiring a more belligerent opponent such as Sheehan to keep him quiet. Also helping Sheehan's cause was that Burgess was somewhat off his game in Wellington, while Sheehan appeared more assured when he came on in the second half.
During a short, rain-interrupted training session at the SFS yesterday, Sheehan spent most of the time running with the Waratahs back line while Burgess watched. Demotion to the bench when the team is announced today would be a major disappointment for Burgess, who, under the Robbie Deans regime, has become the established Wallabies halfback. Sheehan was certainly looking the far more buoyant of the two squad halfbacks at yesterday's session.
NSW coach Chris Hickey on Monday emphasised the importance of the Waratahs nullifying the Chiefs' many strengths.
"They have four or five strike players who can really hurt you from any part of the field," Hickey said. "We certainly will have to be a lot tighter. If we are loose with our kicking game, or turn ball over at the breakdown, they are the type of side who are very good at playing off that unstructured possession. They will punish you with points."
Palu spent the whole session with the Waratahs pack, being involved in all lineout work, and it would be no surprise if he replaces Scott Fava at No.8. Palu is a high-impact player and, after avoiding a suspension for a stomping charge against the Hurricanes, must now be close to convincing Hickey he deserves a starting spot.
Hickey said at the start of training he wanted to make sure Palu was ready to start a match. "This is something we are assessing at the moment," he said. "We want to have a look at how he goes at training and finalise selections in the morning."
The Waratahs' lack of depth in back-rowers was a key reason former Queensland Red and Western Force utility forward Luke Doherty was yesterday named as NSW's last squad member.
Doherty, who can play blindside breakaway and second row, joined the squad on Monday after having played in Italy and Japan the past two seasons. Doherty's first appearance will be with the Junior Waratahs, who are playing in the Friday night curtain-raiser against the Australian Barbarians.
Hickey said winning the first round away was encouraging ahead of three straight home games, but standards had to improve. "We were reasonably happy with our first half against the Hurricanes, but we turned over too much possession during the second half," he said. "This meant that we ended up on the back end of a very high tackle count. While there was a lot of effort and commitment defensively, we wouldn't want to repeat that performance two weeks in a row.
"We probably didn't kick as well as we could have in the second half … There were handling errors, a few free kicks, and that accumulated into a significant amount of possession we gave back to the Hurricanes."
Wallabies winger Clyde Rathbone has meanwhile been cleared of any structural facial damage after being hit in the left cheek during the Brumbies 33-31 win over the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday night. Rathbone is expected to play in Saturday night's match against the Crusaders in Canberra.