A potential classic awaits to kick off Round 3 of Super Rugby this weekend when the Chiefs host the Hurricanes in Hamilton.
Both sides remain unbeaten after two rounds and the defending champions the Hurricanes have started the season at an eyebrow-raising pace, putting 83 points past the Sunwolves and then more impressively 71 on the Rebels last weekend.
The Chiefs’ defence is undoubtedly made of sterner stuff than those two limp efforts but nevertheless, watching the Hurricanes’ attack seamlessly kick back into gear despite many months passing from their title win to the start of the 2017 season has been frightening.
The Hurricanes major stars all look in fine shape, with Dane Coles and Beauden Barrett easing their way back in, but it has been the performances of the likes of Ngani Laumape, Vince Aso and also Brad Shields that have helped to produce those two enormous victories.
Head coach Chris Boyd and the rest of us wll be intrigued to see how they handle the greater threat of the Chiefs, who the Hurricanes defeated in the semi-final last season en route to their first title.
Barrett that day was at his majestic best, creating the first try and then sinking the Chiefs’ hopes with an interception, and the sense heading into Friday’s game is that the Hurricanes will need to be equally clinical against a Chiefs outfit who caused an upset in Round 1 by knocking off the Highlanders away from home.
That victory on the opening weekend was put largely down to the Highlanders’ persistent failures to finish off chances, but that would be a disservice to the Chiefs’ defensive efforts and the quick-thinking of James Lowe, whose two poached tries set the tone.
They were utterly ruthless against the Blues; dominant up front with their rolling maul and once Steven Luatua was red carded the result was never in doubt.
The hype around the Blues proved short-lived but the Hurricanes without doubt are the real deal, a juggernaut attack capable of scoring from everywhere.
When you factor in the Chiefs’ own backline boasting Damian McKenzie, Lowe, Anton Lienert-Brown and Aaron Cruden, then Friday’s match becomes one you cannot afford to miss.
The last time these teams met: Last season’s semi-final ended in a 25-9 win for the Hurricanes at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, as the Chiefs were kept try-less in an enthralling, physical semi-final. Barrett was the star as his initial break set up Willis Halaholo for a score before adding his own interception try, while Victor Vito also bashed over in his penultimate match for the side. All the Chiefs could muster, despite a number of chances, were three McKenzie penalties.
Players to watch: His move to Leinster this week is rightly being regarded as one of the best signings of the season, and James Lowe will be eager to carry on from where he left off last weekend after three tries in his first two games in 2017. Always a constant threat who cannot be given a sniff of a chance. Co-captain Sam Cane is also back in the fold and comes in after sparkling performances from Mitchell Karpik and Lachlan Boshier in his seven jersey in Rounds 1 and 2.
Crowd favourites don’t come much bigger at the Hurricanes meanwhile than Lona Uhila, ‘The Tongan Bear’ who has signed for French juggernauts Clermont. Uhila became famous last season for his tackle-busting carries, and notable haircut, and starts this week at loosehead. One other to keep an eye on is Ngani Laumape, who churned up the metres last weekend with 168, the most in Super Rugby, and has started the season in good touch at inside centre.
Team news: All Blacks openside flanker Cane is primed to make his first appearance of 2017 having fully recovered from the ankle injury he sustained while playing for the All Blacks in November 2016. Hard-working Taranaki loose forward Mitchell Brown will start at blindside flanker, replacing Liam Messam who is being rested following two massive 80-minute performances. There are three changes to the backline with Anton Lienert-Brown shifting to inside centre, Tim Nanai-Williams will wear jersey 13 this week and Toni Pulu claims the right wing. It is a special night for 24-year old Bay of Plenty hooker Sebastian Siataga who could make his Super Rugby debut off the bench.
Meanwhile Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd has made just two changes to his run-on side. Loosehead prop Loni Uhila and lock Mark Abbott have been ushered into the tight five for the big New Zealand derby. Uhila pushes Chris Eves to the reserves and Mike Kainga out of the matchday 23, while Abbott makes a straight swap with James Blackwell, who takes his place on the bench.
Form: The Hurricanes have won three of the last four meetings between the sides, including a 25-9 victory in last year’s semi-final. They have won just two of their last 10 away to the Chiefs (D1, L7), although they won on their most recent trip to face Dave Rennie’s side in June 2015.
The ‘Canes will be aiming to win consecutive matches away to the Chiefs for the first time since winning their first three trips there in 1996, 1998 and 2000; the Hurricanes’ five victories away to the Chiefs have all come by eight points or fewer.
The Chiefs have won their opening two games and are aiming to start their season with three consecutive victories for the third time in the last four years, a feat they had managed just once previously (2010).
The Hurricanes have scored 24 tries in their last two games, more than they had scored in their six games prior (23).
Prediction: A truly fascinating fixture which by a hair we are backing the defending champions to win on Friday. Hurricanes by five.
2016: Hurricanes won 25-9 in Wellington
2016: Chiefs won 28-27 in Wellington
2015: Hurricanes won 21-13 in New Plymouth
2015: Hurricanes won 22-18 in Wellington
2014: Chiefs won 24-16 in Hamilton
2014: Hurricanes won 45-8 in Wellington
2013: Chiefs won 34-22 in Hamilton
2013: Chiefs won 17-12 in Wellington
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (cc), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Sebastian Siataga, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Shaun Stevenson
Hurricanes: 15 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14 Vince Aso, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Reed Prinsep, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Mark Abbott, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Loni Uhila
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Ben May, 19 James Blackwell, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Otere Black, 23 Jordie Barrett
Date: Friday, March 10
Venue: FMG Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Glen Newman (New Zealand)