The Super Rugby semi-finals kick-off in Wellington for what is set to be a thrilling clash between the Hurricanes and Chiefs on Saturday.
It is seed one versus six but make no mistake about it, these two teams are evenly matched this year as only two points separated them in the regular-season table. They won 11 matches apiece and last week both were in exceptional form as they saw off the Sharks and Stormers.
Becoming the first team to nil a knockout opponent in Super Rugby history was some feat from the ‘Canes and it was an inspired performance from the likes of TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett in the wet conditions. Their forwards also fronted up strongly despite several injuries.
The Chiefs have also had their fair share of absentees this campaign as the ongoing concussion symptoms Charlie Ngatai is feeling has been a setback. He was in excellent form early in the season, but credit to 21-year-old Anton Lienert-Brown, who has been a superb replacement.
A boost to the Chiefs comes in the back-row as Michael Leitch is back from injury to take a spot on the bench. He joins Brad Weber who may count himself unlucky to miss out at nine after another great game last week. Possibly the travel factor played its part in that decision.
The Hurricanes, who have won nine of their last 11 games against the Chiefs on home turf, will be sweating on captain Dane Coles’ fitness ahead of the game, as he is given as much time as possible to recover from a rib injury. Losing the All Black would be a significant blow.
What is also concerning for the Hurricanes is that they have lost all six of their play-off games against fellow New Zealand franchises in Super Rugby, including a 14-10 loss to the Chiefs in 2009. For that and several other reasons, the Chiefs will enter this match confident.
Pressure is most definitely going to play a factor in this game and it is worth noting that the Chiefs boast the better semi-final record. In their four Super Rugby semi-final games the men from Hamilton have won three while the Hurricanes have just two wins from seven matches.
Throw in the return of Seta Tamanivalu to their midfield, the possibility of ‘Canes hooker Coles missing out and the Chiefs having won in Wellington 28-27, and the visitors could well come out on top this Saturday. It would be the unthinkable for the Hurricanes as their long wait for a Super Rugby title would continue, despite finishing atop the standings in successive years. It’s clear the pressure is on them.
The last time the teams met: It was a humdinger in Wellington earlier this year as the Chiefs ran out 28-27 winners. Seta Tamanivalu was instrumental for the visitors as he scored two first-half tries while Dane Coles and Beauden Barrett impressed for the hosts. That defeat ended a five-game winning streak for the Hurricanes while victory for the Chiefs was their sixth in a row in a great start to the season.
Players to watch: Battles all over the field excite with Ardie Savea versus Sam Cane and Beauden Barrett up against Aaron Cruden two that stand out. Barrett was outstanding last weekend in the wind and rain in a master-class of game management and needs to produce something similar on Saturday. Meanwhile Cane has upped his game in recent weeks and shown a real physical edge that will please both franchise and country at such a crucial time of the season. If he can contain and get the edge on Savea then that would be a huge step towards victory.
Team news: Hurricanes captain Dane Coles will be given until Saturday to prove his fitness. Coles has been bracketed at hooker with Ricky Riccitelli in an otherwise unchanged line-up from the one which beat the Sharks 41-0. Riccitelli has been bracketed with New Zealand U20 hooker Leni Apisai, who will come into the squad if Coles doesn’t recover in time from a rib injury. Julian Savea continues on the bench.
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie has made two changes and a positional tweak to his starting XV. The pack remains unchanged with Kane Hames, Nathan Harris and Atu Moli packing down together up front. Dominic Bird and Brodie Retallick continue their second-row partnership, with Taleni Seu, Tom Sanders and Sam Cane forming the loose forward trio. In the backs experienced All Black Tawera Kerr-Barlow will start at scrum-half with Aaron Cruden alongside him at fly-half. Anton Lienert-Brown moves to inside centre, with Seta Tamanivalu returning at 13. The bench looks impressive as Michael Leitch is back from injury while Brad Weber and Toni Pulu will offer a great deal when they come on.
Form: The Hurricanes are in serious form at the moment as they enjoy a six-game winning run heading into this fixture. Their last defeat came on May 7 at the Sharks, which was only their fourth of 2016. But as mentioned, the Chiefs won the last time they came to Wellington.
The Chiefs’ hammering of the Stormers came a week after they had been beaten by the Highlanders in Dunedin. Before that they had defeated the Reds and Crusaders, which came after their biggest loss of the year, 45-25 at the Waratahs. Therefore they’re not in perfect form from a consistency angle but if they play like they did in Cape Town, few can live with them. They’ve scored 18 tries in their last three games.
Prediction: On paper the visitors just seem a touch stronger and despite being underdogs, we fancy them to cause a shock. Chiefs by three.
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
2012: Hurricanes won 28-25 in Wellington
Hurricanes: 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Jason Woodward, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Ben May, 2 Dane Coles (c)/Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Loni Uhila
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli/Leni Apisai, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Vince Aso, 23 Julian Savea
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Sam McNicol, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (cc), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Tom Sanders, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Atu Moli, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Mitchell Graham, 19 Lachlan Boshier, 20 Michael Leitch, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Toni Pulu, 23 Shaun Stevenson
Date: Saturday, July 30
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Referees: Glen Jackson, Paul Williams
TMO: Ben Skeen