Preview: Chiefs v Force

Date published: April 23 2015

The Chiefs' title hopes suffered a major blow when Aaron Cruden tore his ACL but they start life without him at home to the Force.

Cruden's season-ending injury, which will also see him miss the World Cup, is cruel on the player, and his club, who looked like genuine contenders to reclaim the Super Rugby crown they lost last season.

In his absence it will be up to brothers Marty and Damian McKenzie to pick up the slack, with the former getting the nod this week.

Fortunately for the Chiefs, they start the post-Cruden era against a Force side in dreadful form, having lost eight in a row.

The Australian side have never won away at the Chiefs, and in fact their only wins in New Zealand in the last seven years have come against the Highlanders.

The good news for the Force is the return of Matt Hodgson, their skipper who has been out injured all season.

He played a key role in the Force's surprise win over the Chiefs last season, and will be vital to salvaging their season.

Pek Cowan, who will make his 100th Super Rugby appearance, urged his teammates to keep working together rather than looking for people to blame.

"The most important thing is being honest with each other. Just making sure we put our hands up when we feel like we've done something wrong," said Cowan.

"It's not necessarily about executing guys for making mistakes. It's about trying to find solutions.

"The moment you start pointing guys out individually in a team sport is when things start to really go wrong.

"We win or lose together. It's pretty simple."

The last time these team met: The Force stunned the then-defending champions last season in Perth thanks to two tries from Matt Hodgson. The Australian side inched home 18-15, keeping the Chiefs tryless as they lost their first game of the campaign.

Players to watch: Having been out of action since the start of the season with a torn hamstring, the Force will be grateful to have Matt Hodgson back fit again. The skipper will be a key addition to the back row and will also be keen to stake his claim for a Wallaby spot.

For the Chiefs it's difficult to look past Marty McKenzie, who has a huge responsibility as he steps into Cruden's boots. WIth younger brother Damian on the bench, the McKenzies will be vital to the Chiefs' chances at the top of the table.

Team news: There are major changes for the Chiefs, especially the absence of Cruden until the end of the season. Marty McKenzie comes in at ten, while Bryce Heem replaces James Lowe on the wing. Up front Johan Bardoul comes in for the rested Liam Messam, while Siate Tokolahi gets the nod over Ben Tameifuna.

For the Force, Hodgson will make his first Super Rugby appearance for the year as he returns to his familiar role at openside flank, joining number eight Ben McCalman and blindside flanker Angus Cottrell in a back-row combination that started in 11 of 16 matches during the 2014 season. Steve Mafi shifts into the second row to fill in for injured interim captain Sam Wykes. In the backline, Ian Prior will start his first match of 2015, replacing injured scrum-half Alby Mathewson. On the bench, scrumhalf Ryan Louwrens is in line to make his Super Rugby debut.

Form: It's been a miserable season for the Force since their opening win over the Waratahs, and they have now lost eight in a row. The Chiefs, on the other hand, have the second best record in the league behind the Hurricanes, having completed home and away wins over the Crusaders thanks to last week's success.

The Chiefs have won three in a row since a 12-11 defeat to the Sharks in Durban, with their only other loss coming against the Highlanders in round four.

Predictions: Losing Cruden was a massive blow for the Chiefs, and it certainly hurts their chances of claiming the Super Rugby title this year. Having said that, they still should have far too much for a struggling Force side, even without the rested Liam Messam. Matt Hodgson's return is a psychological boost for the Australians but expect a comfortable home win. Chiefs by 15!

Previous results:
2014: Force won 18-15 in Perth
2013: Chiefs won 22-21 in Pukehohe
2012: Chiefs won 20-12 in Perth
2010: Chiefs won 37-19 in Perth
2009: Chiefs won 31-13 in Hamilton
2008: Force won 22-21 in Perth

The teams:

Chiefs: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Tim Nanai-Williams, 10 Marty McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Johan Bardoul, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Matt Symons (c), 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Mitchell Graham.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Ben Tameifuna, 19 Michael Fitzgerald, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Damian McKenzie, 23 Andrew Horrell.

Western Force:15 Dane Haylett-Petty, 14 Luke Morahan, 13 Kyle Godwin, 12 Luke Burton, 11 Nick Cummins, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Ian Prior, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 Matt Hodgson (c), 6 Angus Cottrell, 5 Adam Coleman, 4 Steve Mafi, 3 Tetera Faulkner, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Pekahou Cowan.
Replacements: 16 Heath Tessmann, 17 Chris Heiberg, 18 Oliver Hoskins, 19 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 20 Kane Koteka, 21 Ryan Louwrens, 22 Junior Rasolea, 23 Marcel Brache.

Date: Friday, April 24
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT, 17:35 AEST, 09:35 SAST )
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant referees: Kane McBride, Mike Lash
TMO: Glenn Newman