Top spot in New Zealand is on the line this weekend as the conference-leading Chiefs visit the in-form Hurricanes at the Cake Tin.
Top spot in New Zealand is on the line this weekend as the conference-leading Chiefs visit the in-form Hurricanes at the Cake Tin on Saturday.
With just four points separating the top four teams in the Kiwi conference, something has to give and the pressure on! The Highlanders and Crusaders, who meet in Christchurch on Saturday, are both in a position to move ahead of the Chiefs if the defending champions slip up.
The 'Canes meanwhile are four adrift of their visitors and will know that defeat is likely to snuff out their play-off hopes.
Indeed, last weekend's one-point loss to the Highlanders was a real blow to the Wellington outfit and assistant coach Alama Ieremia admitted they can't afford another hiccup.
“We'll take things week by week, but it's almost like the knockout stages of a World Cup now: lose and you're gone,” said Ieramia.
The good news is fly-half Beauden Barrett – the tournament's leading points scorer this season – has put a hip injury behind him and will no doubt be relishing the opportunity of facing off with All Blacks rival Aaron Cruden when the latter returns from injury off the Chiefs bench.
We're set for a thrilling clash as the Hurricanes have averaged the most clean breaks (8.9) and defenders beaten (25) this year while the Chiefs' average of 3.2 tries per game is a Super Rugby high. When it comes to tries scored this year, the Hurricanes (36) and the Chiefs (35) are the competition's two front runners.
But for all their counter-attacking brilliance, if there is a chink in the defending champions' armour, it is a misfiring line-out. The Chiefs' line-out success rate of 78 percent is the worst in Super Rugby.
As a result, the hosts will look to returning All Black hooker Dane Coles to use his accurate line-out throwing to gain maximum advantage from the Hurricanes set piece, which has worked well this year.
The home side are best advised to build a lead early on because the Chiefs have scored more tries after the hour mark (14) than any other team this year.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie has once shuffled his backline, bringing in wing Asaeli Tikoirotuma and centre Charlie Ngatai while Tim Nanai-Williams moves back to full-back.
“Yep, they change personnel and just manage to keep performing,” said Hurricanes skipper Conrad Smith.
“Whoever comes in does the job required of them. There are a few signatures about their play that you know you will get, but whoever they play, particularly in that backline, they are very good at taking advantage of mistakes and counter-attack opportunities. Those are the things we're aware of.
“I'm not even sure who is starting for them yet but whoever it is, it'll be a hard night for us.”
The hosts have made a few changed themselves with Alapati Leiua most notably back at inside centre for what promises to be an interesting match up with Bundee Aki.
Form: The Chiefs have won their last two matches, against the Lions and the Blues but have not claimed victory on the road since Round 2, although they drew away to both the Bulls and Cheetahs. They haven't won three games in a row yet this season. The Hurricanes lost 18-16 at home to the Highlanders last week but have won five of their last seven games. Before the Highlanders defeat, the 'Canes had won their previous four home games.
2013: Chiefs won 34-22 in Hamilton
2013: Chiefs won 17-12 in Wellington
2012: Hurricanes won 28-25 in Wellington
2012: Chiefs 33-14 in Hamilton
Prediction: There is literally nothing to choose between these side. The average score when the Hurricanes play the Chiefs is…23-23. Overall they've played each other 22 times in Super Rugby since 1996 with ten wins apiece plus a draw. The Chiefs have been inconsistent this season though, especially on the road. The Hurricanes by five.
Despite their inconsistent start to the season BetBright have the Chiefs at 18/5 to retain their Super Rugby title.
Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Alapati Leiua, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon/Reggie Goodes, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Reggies Goodes/Mike Kainga, 19 Brad Shields, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Tim Bateman, 23 Matt Proctor/James Marshall.
Chiefs: 15 Tim Nanai-Williams, 14 Dwayne Sweeney, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Tanerau Latimer, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Michael Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Mahonri Schwalger, 17 Jamie Mackintosh, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Kane Thompson, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Tom Marshall.
Date: Saturday, 24 May
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19.35 local (07.35 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)