Preview: Highlanders v Chiefs

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Friday, May 29, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Saturday 30 May at 7.35pm
Rugby Park Stadium, Invercargill

Played: 24, 1996-2015
Highlanders wins: 9
Chiefs wins: 15

Highlanders points: 519
Chiefs points: 574

Last match: Highlanders 20 Chiefs 17, 06.03.15 in Hamilton

Round 16 teams:

Form: The Highlanders appeared to have remedied what has been their biggest hurdle under coach Jamie Joseph, powerful openings to seasons haven’t been the issue – maintaining the rage all the way to the finals have been the trick.

A combination of one of the most complete ever ‘Landers squads, a cunning game plan operating to the players strengths and arguably their best ever offence (one more try sets a new record during a regular season) has allowed them to finish strongly.

Collecting ten competition points on the road, romping to big wins against the Cheetahs and Force, was in a small way a final frontier for the team – if they had wobbled they could have dropped out of the top six.

Instead they have confirmed they have the weaponry to match any team.

There only obstacles seem to be residing within the country, they play the Chiefs, Canes and Blues to finish their regular season and will likely face Dave Rennie’s or Chris Boyd’s troops in the playoffs at some stage.

The visitors are hardly wobbling, but two losses in their last three has exposed a hint of vulnerability, and with one of the meatiest injury tolls of any New Zealand team, the two-time champions will have their work cut out for them at Rugby Park.

The Chiefs have at their best looked title class, but if they sink to their third straight loss against the Highlanders it will be their fourth defeat in their last five away games – hardly an achievement worthy of a champion elect.

However Rennie and his men will know the equation, a bonus point win here could secure the top wildcard position by the conclusion of the round.

Key players: The absence of Nasi Manu and Liam Messam for both teams, forwards who often lead the charge, may see a slight revision of tactics heading into what could be a record crowd in Invercargill.

Both packs, featuring less internationals than most Investec Super Rugby squads, will look to play the game with pace, and if it turns into a battle of attrition it could be interesting, the Highlanders look better during such a contest but they have been away from cosy familiar beds for nearly a month.

The real key for the home team once again will be a backline that could lay claim to being one of the best in the competition, with the advantage that with Lima Sopoaga running the cutter Jamie Joseph is one of the few coaches who has a fully fit first choice number ten.

Further out, words are beginning to feel inadequate when talking about the punch of Malakai Fekitoa, the bundled power of Waisake Naholo, the ethereal class of Ben Smith, the fabulously flat attack of Aaron Smith. 

We could gush for hours.

The Chiefs cannot deny that without Sonny Bill Williams and Aaron Cruden they look less formidable, even if the backyard connection of Damian and Marty McKenzie (at 15 and 10 respectively) could light up Rugby Park.

Hosea Gear is looking more like the roaming devastation we remember, but the result will be determined by the coal face, and look for new captain and tackle machine Sam Cane to set the tone early alongside the reborn Hika Elliot and the evergreen Ross Filipo.

Squad update: Lock Mark Reddish suffered a hand injury during the 23-3 win over the Force in Perth and is replaced in the team by Tom Franklin, Joe Latta joins trhe reserves as lock cover. Richard Buckman returns to the midfield in place of Shaun Treeby. Jason Emery completes the back reserves on the bench for this match

Co-Captain, Nasi Manu, sustained a shoulder injury in the lead up to last weekend’s game and is awaiting scan results.

This will be the final home game for the Highlanders in 2015. Ben Smith’s 100th Super Rugby match will be recognised by local New Zealand Rugby Board Member Graham Cooney who will present a pounamu mere post-match.

Prop Pauliasi Manu returns to the run-on fifteen while lock Michael Fitzgerald comes back into the side and will partner up with veteran Ross Filipo who gets another run this week.

Maama Vaipulu will replace Liam Messam who suffered a left shoulder injury during the Chiefs v Bulls match in Rotorua and is undergoing further investigation to determine the full extent of the injury. In his absence Sam Cane will captain the side.

Marty McKenzie joins the starting line up in the number 10 jersey while brother Damian moves to fullback. In the only other change to the team, Mitchell Crosswell comes into the reserves.