Preview: Highlanders v Chiefs
Friday, June 19, 2015 James Mortimer Getty Images
Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Played: 25, 1996-2015
Highlanders wins: 10
Chiefs wins: 15
Highlanders points: 558
Chiefs points: 580
Last played: Highlanders 36 Chiefs 9, 30.05.15 in Invercargill
Form: With more wins and competition points than they have ever achieved, this is a special Highlanders team and many in the Deep South believe that this could be the year.
A home qualifier will help, but the reality is that even if they conquer the Chiefs, Jamie Joseph and his team will have to travel next week and potentially the week after (however if the Brumbies beat the Stormers, and the Hurricanes and Waratahs are defeated, then the final will be at Forsyth Barr).
With a scintillating attacking game and arguably the best backline in the competition, the Southerners boast numerous offensive weapons.
Waisake Naholo and Pat Osborne frequently look to the inside channels when running their lethal raids.
Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa’s talents are well known, but Richard Buckman, the most prolific tackler of all the Highlanders backs has been something of a silent assassin – but all of this wouldn’t be possible without one of the hardest working packs in the tournament.
The Chiefs meanwhile arrive in Dunedin with the worst form of any of the top six teams, losing four of their last six.
This has not been a jugular strike, Dave Rennie and his team put together a near impeccable opening, recording an 8-2 start to their 2015 campaign.
There will be slight concern, the Chiefs have not defeated the Hurricanes or Highlanders this season so need to lift if they are to defeat the top two teams in the New Zealand Conference.
Key players: We have talked about most members of the backline but one individual who requires special attention is Lima Sopoaga.
A major player when it comes the form of the side in 2015, Sopoaga has been exceptional, his statistics compare favourably to All Blacks regulars, and the young man could be part of the upcoming Test squad (announced on Sunday).
Manu returns at eight, who joins Dan Pryor and Elliot Dixon in the back row, a combination with zero Test caps but a trio that has matched all comers this season.
However the remainder of the forwards, against a near strength Chiefs pack, will be severely examined by many men who have won two Investec Super Rugby titles.
Much has been made of Aaron Cruden’s absence, and Andrew Horrell will wear the number 10 jersey, not Marty McKenzie (who may come off the pine).
Sonny Bill Williams and Tim Nanai-Williams combine in the midfield, and with the dynamic James Lowe and Sevens maestro Bryce Heem on the outside flanks, the tourists won’t be overawed by the blue chip Highlanders back division.
One would assume that the likes of Cane, Elliot, Brodie Retallick and Ben Tameifuna, with big rigs like Jamie Mackintosh and Michael Leitch coming off the bench, would be too good for the home team’s forward unit.
Yet this hasn’t been the case this year, so expect captain Liam Messam and his Test team-mates to put in a mighty effort to give the Chiefs a shot at their third title in four years.
Squad update: Head Coach Joseph welcomes back two key forwards for the all-important qualifying game against the Chiefs this Saturday.
Co-captain Manu and the experienced Mark Reddish make a timely return from injury to bolster the pack.
The versatile Dan Pryor, who has played in all three back row position this season, moves to the openside flank replacing the injured John Hardie. In the front row Daniel Lienert-Brown makes way for Brendon Edmonds.
Fekitoa, who has been under an injury cloud over the last few weeks, has been named to start at centre reuniting with the explosive back three of Smith, Naholo and Osborne.
Elliot and flanker Cane will return to the side, having been rested last week. The match will be the hooker’s 100th Super Rugby game.
Michael Fitzgerald moves onto the blindside while captain Liam Messam takes over the No 8 duties. Brad Weber starts at halfback and Andrew Horrell gets the nod at first five-eighth.
Cousins Tim Nanai-Williams and Sonny Bill Williams will pair up in the midfield with Charlie Ngatai out due to concussion. Damian McKenzie starts at fullback with Tom Marshall ruled out with a knee injury.
24 year-old Kayne Hammington gets the opportunity to make his Super Rugby debut for the Chiefs off the bench. He is joined by new reserves Michael Leitch, Marty McKenzie and Seta Tamanivalu.
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