New Zealand's top two sides face off on Friday as the Chiefs host the Crusaders for what should be a titanic clash at Waikato Stadium.
New Zealand's top two sides face off on Friday as the Chiefs host the Crusaders in Hamilton.
The 2012 champion Chiefs find themselves top of the Super Rugby table and currently six points clear of the Crusaders, setting the opportunity to open up a comfortable gulf between themselves and the rest of the New Zealand sides after this weekend.
Coming into Friday's match on the back of four successive wins over the Sharks, Rebels, Force and Hurricanes, the Chiefs have only lost twice all season.
Despite much being made of the loss of Sonny Bill Williams before the season began, the Chiefs remain one of the best attacking sides in the league.
No one has scored more tries (37) or made more offloads (154) thus far in the competition, and the Chiefs find themselves amongst the top five for metres made, defenders beaten and clean breaks.
A large portion of their success has come down the form of Gareth Anscombe. The Chiefs fly-half is the joint top points scorer in the league with MornÃ© Steyn on 163, having also racked up five tries of his own. Tim Nanai-Williams has also heavily contributed with six.
Sam Cane, who starts from the bench on Friday, has underlined the title given him to his last year of being Richie McCaw's heir apparent to the All Black number seven jersey, with only three players having made more tackles in the league than his 154. His combination with Liam Messam has been outstanding.
Putting the Crusaders early season troubles down to a lack of McCaw influence over the side seems harsh given the talent remaining in their squad, but the season has not been easy for Todd Blackadder's side.
A run of three losses followed by three victories since the beginning of April highlight how scattered their form has been.
Dan Carter's struggles with injury have played a part in unsettling a back division that has failed to hit the heights in attack, running in eight tries less than the Chiefs so far with 29 and making 39 fewer clean breaks.
Their defence has remained strong, finding themselves in the top five, but the Crusaders true strength has been their scrum with a success rate of 97 percent.
Combined with a superior lineout – 83.9 percent to the Chiefs' 80.3 percent – the Crusaders have a clear advantage at the set-piece which combined with Carter's knowledgable boot offers the key to success and to narrowing the gap at the top of the New Zealand Conference.
The Chiefs and Crusaders are however inseparable at the breakdown. Both have a ruck success percentage of 96, making the work of the likes of Messam and Tanerau Latimer, Matt Todd and Kieran Read all the more important.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie has made two changes to his starting XV with Ben Tameifuna comes in at prop for Ben Afeaki, who is out this week with a calf strain, while Patrick Osborne starts on the wing.
There are three changes to the bench, with Toby Smith, Sam Cane and Lelia Masaga moving into the reserves.
Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder has recalled Israel Dagg into his starting XV, with Tom Taylor moving to inside centre, Ryan Crotty shifting to 13, replacing Robbie Fruean, who drops to the bench.
There is one change to the pack with hooker Codie Taylor taking over from Ben Funnell.
Prediction: Extremely close to call, but the Chiefs attack is capable of producing the decisive score. Chiefs by 3!
Chiefs: 15 Robbie Robinson, 14 Patrick Osborne, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Matt Vant Leven, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke (c), 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Mahonri Schwalger, 17 Toby Smith, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Augustine Pulu, 21 Dan Waenga, 22 Lelia Masaga.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Tom Marshall, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Tom Taylor, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell/Laurence Corlett, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Dominic Bird, 19 Luke Whitelock, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Robbie Fruean, 22 Telusa Veianu.
Date: Friday, May 24
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19.35 (07.35 GMT)
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)