New Zealanders will get their first taste of Super Rugby action this year when the defending champions head to Dunedin.
New Zealanders will get their first taste of Super Rugby action this year when the defending champions head to Dunedin to take on the Highlanders.
After last year's successful campaign, the Chiefs will be the team that every other side wants to beat. With this being a derby, expect a tough battle with neither side giving the other an inch.
Indeed, this clash promises much as both sides are favoured to reach the play-offs and to be amongst the front-runners in the New Zealand conference.
The Highlanders mean business in 2013. After missing out on the play-offs in 2012, coach Jamie Joseph has gone on a recruitment drive and bolstered his squad with the addition of World Cup winners Ma'a Nonu, Tony Woodcock and Brad Thorn.
The southerners seemed to lack confidence at crucial stages during last season's campaign and the experience which the above mentioned trio bring could prove the difference between winning and losing close matches. However, Thorn has been ruled out of Friday's opener.
With newly appointed captain Andrew Hore still serving a suspension, Hosea Gear will captain the Highlanders during the tournament's opening rounds. Gear led the team the during friendlies against the Chiefs (which the men from Hamilton won 36-14), the Crusaders as well as the Blues and it will be interesting to see how the added responsibilty affects his form on the wing.
Losing players of Sonny Bill Williams and Sona Taumalolo's calibre will be a massive setback for the Chiefs, but with experienced head coach Dave Rennie and assistants like former All Blacks boss Wayne Smith running the show, be assured that plans have been made to negate these losses.
With Gareth Anscombe now in their ranks, the Chiefs tactical kicking is expected to show considerable improvement. Having the former Blues pivot in the same starting XV alongside Aaron Cruden means that the Highlanders back three will have to be at their best at dealing with the aerial assault.
These two sides also met in the opening round of last year's competition with the Highlanders winning 23-19 in Hamilton, but the Chiefs turned the tables when they won the return fixture 27-21 in Dunedin – a game which ultimately cost the Highlanders a place in the play-offs.
Prediction: Although the Chiefs won the warm-up match, between these sides, don't read too much into that result. Homeground and their highly-rated new players will give the Highlanders the edge. It should be close but the Highlanders will win by three points!
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Phil Burleigh, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear (c), 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 John Hardie, 6 Joe Wheeler, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Elliot Dixon, 19 Tim Boys, 20 Fumiaki Tanaka, 21 Hayden Parker, 22 Buxton Popoali'i.
Chiefs: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Patrick Osborne, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 Ben Afeaki, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Ben Tameifuna, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Tanerau Latimer, 20 Augustine Pulu, 21 Charlie Ngatai, 22 Lelia Masaga.
Date: Friday, February 22
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19.35 (06.30 GMT)
Referee: Steve Walsh
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser, Kane McBride