NSW breakaway Michael Hooper says the Waratahs are still masters of their own destiny but face season-defining matches against the Hurricanes and Lions during the next few weeks.
As coach Michael Cheika benched three of last week's starters, Hooper said a win against the Hurricanes, New Zealand conference leaders, on Saturday was crucial to keeping the season in the Waratahs' hands.
"I still don't think we're relying on other results to pull us through to finals time," he said.
"If we can string a few wins together from the next couple of weeks, we are right in the mix from our own doing. That's just back-to-back performances and getting all that stuff we've been talking about together."
Damaging but injury-prone No.8 Wycliff Palu has been rushed into the side after three matches on the sideline and an appearance off the bench in the loss to the Blues last week.
Test prop Sekope Kepu has made way for Paddy Ryan at tight-head prop after playing just 27 minutes in Auckland.
And veteran back Matt Carraro, who returned to the Waratahs after five seasons in England and France, has replaced Cam Crawford on the right wing in his first starting role of the season.
"Matt's been coming off the bench for us and giving us some real positive play so he's been rewarded with that opportunity," defence coach Nathan Grey said.
"He's a very good attacking player, a good defender and a good communicator ... he's forced our hand a bit with that sort of form."
Crawford could drop out of the side altogether if rookie Alofa Alofa pulls up fit on Wednesday morning. Both were bracketed on the reserves bench after Alofa, who was a fixture on the wing in the Waratahs' early-season wins, made a faster than expected recovery from a knee injury.
"He has to pass a final fitness test but the guys have been really happy with where he's been with his rehab and he's ticked the boxes pretty quickly," Grey said.
"Having him available would be great but he still has to get through the final [fitness test on Tuesday]."
Elsewhere, Palu's return has resulted in captain Dave Dennis moving back to No.6, Jacques Potgieter back into the second row, and Will Skelton back to the bench.
Hooper said the return of the Test No.8 would send a signal to the Hurricanes.
"It's great motivation having Cliff back," he said. "His physicality and the opposition knowing he's in the team is good to have."
Playmakers Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale reprise their partnership at five-eighth and inside centre respectively, Israel Folau starts again at fullback and Rob Horne, who came agonisingly close to scoring in the second minute of last week's match, starts again on the wing, with Nick Phipps at halfback.
Grey ruled out overhauling the Waratahs' game plan after a slew of errors cost the side multiple try-scoring opportunities.
"At this level, if you create four or five opportunities and you don't convert four or five of them, you're going to struggle," he said.
"The team's had that realisation and we've pushed it through the whole pre-season, because we know how important it is. It's not so much looking to change a lot of things, just focusing on ... those incremental improvements across the board. They add up to be really powerful."
Jono Lance and Brendan McKibbin are the other back line reserves; replacement hooker Tolu Latu, prop Jeremy Tilse, and either Stephen Hoiles or Pat McCutcheon will round out the bench.
Waratahs: Israel Folau, Matt Carraro, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Kurtley Beale, Rob Horne, Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps, Wycliff Palu, Michael Hooper, Dave Dennis (c), Jacques Potgieter, Kane Douglas, Paddy Ryan, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson. Res: Tolu Latu, Jeremy Tilse, Sekope Kepu, Will Skelton, Stephen Hoiles or Pat McCutcheon, Brendan McKibbin, Jono Lance, Alofa Alofa or Cam Crawford.