Saturday's action kicks-off with what could well be another Super Rugby humdinger between the Chiefs and Highlanders in Hamilton.
Saturday's action kicks-off with what could well be another Super Rugby humdinger between the Chiefs and Highlanders at Waikato Stadium.
It was a year and week ago that rugby was treated to an unbelievably frantic three minutes of action between these two sides at Forsyth Barr Stadium, summing up what was an enthralling game that saw Tim Nanai-Williams stand out at centre while Gareth Anscombe kicked superbly from full-back.
That 27-41 win for the Chiefs on the road kick started their title defence, but on home soil later that season it was a much tighter affair, with Nanai-Williams and Anscombe again starring in a 19-7 victory. We expect something high scoring this time around judging from the openers.
First-match cobwebs were blown off by Saturday's hosts as they sealed that win over the Crusaders, with their attacking game set to enjoy much more airtime seven days on against a Highlanders side that had the second worst tackle percentage in 2013, leaking a high 27.5 points per game.
Should the Highlanders not improve from a defensive standpoint then this Chiefs team has the tools to cut loose, as eyes turn to Robbie Fruean, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Liam Messam to name just three of their threats. Of course Ben Tameifuna will also look to get into Super Rugby debutant Kane Hames.
Are we writing the visitors off too easily? Maybe, as there was an encouraging grit evident in a team that's without the so-called bigger name players such as Ma'a Nonu, Hosea Gear, Kade Poki, Tamati Ellison, Tony Woodcock, Jamie Mackintosh and Colin Slade in 2014.
Step forward the likes of Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa and Liam Coltman, with the former impressing particularly in defence against the Blues. In fact, that showing saw the winger rewarded with a full-time contract which typifies the determination from these relative unknowns, much like the Blues of 2013. Shane Christie, who is benched this week for the returning John Hardie, also shone with his personal effort for the cause, making 21 tackles.
Up against the champions though, will this spirit be enough to shock a line-up that sees the return of Tanerau Latimer and Mahonri Schwalger? Both teams are missing their key lock in Brodie Retallick and Brad Thorn respectively but on balance this should be a home victory.
Prediction: Champions will be too strong. Chiefs by 15!
Chiefs: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Nick Crosswell, 5 Matt Symons, 4 Michael Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahroni Schwalger, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Jamie Mackintosh, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Tevita Koloamatangi, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Brad Webber, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 James Lowe.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Winston Stanley, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Malakai Fekitoa, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 John Hardie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Craig Millar, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Shane Christie, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Trent Renata, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Date: Saturday, March 1
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)