Preview: Highlanders v Chiefs

Date published: May 29 2015

Trailing the Hurricanes but still right in the hunt for a wildcard spot in the play-offs, the Highlanders host the Chiefs on Saturday.

Both teams have produced some spectacular attacking rugby thus far in 2015, while also picking up enough wins to remain in the hunt as the regular season winds down.

Only a single point separates the two sides on the table, with both teams sharing nine wins from 14 games and the Chiefs' extra losing bonus point proving to be the difference at this stage.

Starting with the hosts, even last week when they were sucked into a kicking battle with the Force in Perth they still looked a class apart. You might think the Highlanders would be a soft side upfront given the flair they produce in their backline play, but it simply isn't the case.

No side in fact has won more turnovers in Super Rugby this year than their 125, including ten last Saturday, while only the Crusaders and Hurricanes have scored more tries than Jamie Joseph's men.

Marshalled brilliantly by Ben Smith, the Highlanders are smart with their options and don't just put the ball through the hands at any moment unless the chance is on. They have produced the third-highest number of kicks from hand so far in the competition, highlighting their preference to play in the right territory.

If there is one criticism to make it concerns their defence given that none of their play-off rivals have conceded as many tries as their 31, but that's cancelled out by the Highlanders having produced 40 scores of their own.

Last season the Highlanders were the surprise package, but a year on with their youngs backs now established figures they truly feel like contenders. 

The Chiefs are on the other hand trying to work their way towards a remarkable third title in four years – an achievement last reached by the Bulls between 2007 and 2010.

Injuries and departures mean the Chiefs aren't quite the same side that wowed supporters in 2012 and 2013, but the talent they have is undeniable.

If there's a downside to their aspirations then it's the injuries to Brodie Retallick, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden, but the Chiefs have shown just how good their strength in depth is with the impact made by Augustine Pulu and Damian McKenzie in last week's win over the Bulls.

Michael Fitzgerald's return provides some respite on the injury front for this weekend's away fixture but Dave Rennie has certainly had his resources tested more than ever before. Getting through to the knockout stages will be some achievement.

The last time these teams met: Back in Hamilton in March the Highlanders snatched a 20-17 victory over the Chiefs thanks to two late penalties from replacement Marty Banks, despite the Chiefs have scored two penalty tries.

Players to watch: The Highlanders will once again be without influential number eight Nasi Manu, putting the onus on their back row to step up including his replacement Dan Pryor. The dreadlocked forward isn't hard to miss but also packs a serious punch for the Highlanders in their work at the breakdown and is a useful carrier in the wider channels, having grabbed a couple of tries already in 2015.

As for the Chiefs there's a new man at fly-half with Marty McKenzie coming back into the number ten shirt. His brother Damien has been moved to full-back after an excellent outing last weekend, giving the older McKenzie brother the chance to steer the ship and try and pick open the home side's defence. His brother has set the standard, giving Marty a little bit of extra incentive to go well on Saturday.

Team news: Pryor retains his place for the Highlanders while lock Mark Reddish suffered a hand injury last weekend and is replaced in the team by Tom Franklin. Joe Latta joins the reserves as lock cover. Richard Buckman returns to the midfield in place of Shaun Treeby. Jason Emery completes the back reserves on the bench.

Meanwhile for the Chiefs, Maama Vaipulu will replace captain Liam Messam. In his absence Sam Cane will captain the side. The changes continue for the Chiefs with prop Pauliasi Manu returning to the starting XV. Lock Michael Fitzgerald comes back into the side in the second-row. In the only other change to the matchday 23, Mitchell Crosswell joins the reserves.

Form: The Highlanders have lost only two of their last eight games, to the Lions and Brumbies, and have managed to score nine tries in their last two matches away from home. Their winning record at home currently stands at 71 percent, one of the strongest so far this year.

As for the Chiefs, they have lost two of their last three clashes but both were by four points or less on the road to the Rebels and Hurricanes before last week's success at home. That losing bonus point to the league leading 'Canes is in fact what separates them from the Highlanders in terms of points so far. The Chiefs have also only conceded 20 tries this season at an average of 1.5 per game, the second lowest total in the competition.

Predictions: This one is incredibly tight to call given what we've seen these two sides produce so far, but let's hope for an all-out attack and plenty of tries. Home form may just sway it for the Highlanders if they can get Patrick Osborne and Waisake Naholo into the game. Highlanders by 3!

Previous results:

2015: Highlanders won 20-17 in Hamilton 
2014: Highlanders won 29-25 in Dunedin
2014: Chiefs won 21-19 in Hamilton

2013: Chiefs won 19-7 in Hamilton

The teams:

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Dan Pryor, 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Latta, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.

Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Hosea Gear, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Bryce Heem, 10 Marty McKenzie, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Maama Vaipulu, 5 Michael Fitzgerald, 4 Ross Filipo, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Mitchell Graham, 19 Brian Alainu’uese, 20 Mitchell Crosswell, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 Tim Nanai-Williams.

Date: Saturday 30th May
Venue: Rugby Park Stadium, Invercargill
Kick-off:  19:35 local, (07:35 GMT, 17:35 AEST, 09:35 SAST)
Referee: Nick Briant
Assistant Referees: Shane McDermott, Mike Lash
TMO: Glenn Newman