A rematch of last year’s quarter-final and the 2013 Super Rugby Final as well, the Chiefs face the Brumbies at Yarrow Stadium.
Stephen Larkham’s men were arguably the standout side over Round 1, despite many focusing their attention on how poor the Reds were instead of how the Brumbies ran red hot.
With their nearly all-Wallaby backline and an inspired performance from David Pocock on his return, the Brumbies were more or less unstoppable. It helps to have two such dominant half-backs as Nic White and Matt Toomua, with White’s tactical kicking a really noticeable quality. His individual try, grubbering the ball through Will Genia’s legs, was simply too good.
Of course White and Toomua can’t start weaving magic out wide without the dominance of their forward pack. Sam Carter and Scott Fardy are now Wallaby favourites, with the former winning ten lineouts and stealing one against the hapless Reds. Excelling at the set-piece has been a Brumbies strong point since Jake White first took over and against the Reds they lost just one out of 25.
Another week however brings a bigger challenge for the Brumbies; namely stopping the Chiefs and Sonny Bill Williams from fracturing their defence. One they are ready for.
It speaks volumes about the Chiefs that even with many youngsters stepping up against the Blues, especially the outstanding Damian McKenzie, now the 2012 and 2013 champions can recall the quality of guys like Liam Messam, Aaron Cruden and Brodie Retallick.
Friday will also be the first chance to see new signing Hosea Gear in action after his stints overseas, with the veteran hungry to impress in a Rugby World Cup year.
Dave Rennie’s squad is deep and rich, packed with talent, which is why there are such high expectations for the Chiefs in this year’s competition. Losing Friday’s clash wouldn’t be a disaster in the wider context of the season, but it will provide a useful yardstick for Rennie and his coaching staff to evaluate where they must improve, if a third title in four seasons is to come back to Waikato. You can guarantee that win or lose, they will play with plenty of style.
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie: “There is a huge amount of competition for places and we are excited to have our returning All Blacks back in the mix. Between our team and the Brumbies there are plenty of world class players on display and with the styles both teams like to play it will be a real positive game.”
Brumbies head coach Stephen Larkham: “It’s a pleasure to welcome Ita Vaea back to the starting side for the first time in two years. In my time in rugby this has been one of the great fight-back stories, right up there with Julian Huxley, and I’m pleased for Ita that he’s been able to make a full return to the starting side. There’s no doubt we’ll miss David Pocock, but as the Brumbies Player’s Player in 2014 Jarrad Butler was outstanding and I’m excited to see him back in the number seven jersey.
Last time out: Despite nearly blowing the biggest lead in Super Rugby finals history, which would have been some accomplishment, Cruden’s late missed conversion of Gareth Anscombe’s try couldn’t level the scores and so the Brumbies advanced to the Super Rugby semi-finals, winning 32-30. The hosts had scorched out into a 22-3 lead before the Chiefs levelled things up at 25-25 in the second half of an epic knockout clash.
Players to Watch: In on the left wing comes Hosea Gear, the former Hurricanes flyer who has more recently been plying his trade first with Toulouse and then with Honda Heat. Gear has a record of 39 tries in 102 Super Rugby games for the Hurricanes and Highlanders – you won’t find many better ratios than that.
On the other side, with Pocock now out for some time, Jarrad Butler is set to come in as his replacement. Butler has appeared regularly for the Brumbies since his move from the Reds at the end of 2013. Still only 23, Butler grabbed his chance in light of the Brumbies injuries last year by the scruff of the neck and will now be expected to do the same.
Team News: The return of Messam, Cruden and a debut for Gear is a big boost for the Chiefs, who missed perhaps that extra touch of composure in their win over the Blues that those players offer in spades. Other changes to the starting XV see prop Jamie Mackintosh line up alongside Hika Elliot and Siate Tokolahi in the front row, while in the backs, Tom Marshall and Tim Nanai-Williams are unavailable due to injury, so with Gear starting on the left wing, James Lowe moves to full-back with Bryce Heem retained on the right wing.
For the Brumbies, Ita Vaea comes in at number eight for his first appearance since 2012, and first at number eight since 2011. Vaea has battled a serious heart condition for more than two years. Vaea’s elevation to the starting side brings means Jarrad Butler moves to openside flanker and Sean Doyle comes onto the bench. The rest of the Brumbies side is unchanged.
Form: Winners in Albany last week, the Chiefs weren’t able to complete a historic hat-trick last year, being knocked out by the Brumbies in the Qualifying Round having finished a good seven points behind the Crusaders at the top of the New Zealand Conference. In total they won eight matches in 2014, drawing two. The Brumbies last year finished above the Chiefs by just a single point, therefore winning that home advantage in Canberra. After their victory they lost in the semi-finals to the Waratahs. Last week, they thrashed the Reds 47-3.
Predictions: This really is cracking fixture to kick off Round 2 – especially when you take into account the history between these two sides over the last few years. The loss of Pocock is a setback but while the Chiefs are welcoming back those big names, it’s also their first game of the season and rust could be an issue. That said, home advantage should tell in the end. Chiefs by 5.
2014: Brumbies won 32-30 in Canberra (Qualifying Round)
2014: Brumbies win 41-23 in Canberra
2013: Chiefs won 27-22 in Hamilton (Super Rugby Final)
2012: Chiefs won 29-22 in Hamilton
2011: Brumbies won 28-20 in Canberra
2010: Brumbies won 30-23 in Canberra
2009: Chiefs won 10-7 in Hamilton
2008: Chiefs won 42-28 in Canberra
Chiefs: 15 James Lowe, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Maama Vaipulu, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam (captain), 5 Michael Fitzgerald, 4 Matt Symons, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Ben Tameifuna, 19 Brodie Retallick, 20 Tevita Koloamatangi, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Damian McKenzie, 23 Seta Tamanivalu
Brumbies: 15 Robbie Coleman, 14 Joe Tomane, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Henry Speight, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White (c), 8 Ita Vaea, 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Scott Sio
Replacements: 16 Stephen Moore 17 JP Smith 18 Ruan Smith 19 Jordan Smiler 20 Sean Doyle 21 Michael Dowsett 22 James Dargaville 23 Lausii Taliauli
Date: Friday, February 20
Venue: Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Shane McDermott (New Zealand), Paul Williams (New Zealand)
TMO: Glen Newman (New Zealand