Preview: Highlanders v Chiefs

27th Jun 2014, 08:05

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Highlanders kingpin: Ben Smith

Highlanders kingpin: Ben Smith

There will be more than pride at stake when the Highlanders host the Chiefs in their key Super Rugby derby in Dunedin on Friday.

There will be more than pride at stake when the Highlanders host the Chiefs in their Super Rugby derby in Dunedin on Friday.

With just three points separating these sides on the table, and both still in contention for the play-offs, the stakes will be high.

The Highlanders are currently in fifth position in the standings while the Chiefs are in eighth spot three points adrift.

With this match's result set to change these teams' position on the table, Highlanders boss Jamie Joseph knows that a victory is imperative for the home side.

"You probably can't get a bigger game than against the defending champions," he told the Otago Daily Times.

"It is a must-win game for them and they will be under a bit of pressure. They know they have to win while we can probably still make it even if we don't win this game.

''We have just got to prepare as we normally do. It is a short week, with the game on Friday, so we will be training every day, not changing too much and looking to freshen the guys up.''

The Highlanders have been boosted by the return of their All Blacks - back-line trio Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa - who will be expected to be at the forefront of their attacking play in this encounter.

''They have been key guys but they have been doing that every week,'' Joseph said.

''At the business end of the season, where we are now, it is about everyone standing up and all needing to play to the best of their ability.''

Full-back Smith has been one of the tournament's most dangerous players with ball in hand. He is the only player to notch up 1,000+ metres over the gainline so far this season with 1,034 gained in all matches.

The two Smiths, Fekitoa and right wing Richard Buckman are the only players to start all the Highlanders' matches in 2014 with Ben Smith and Fekitoa playing in every minute of every game so far.

Both sides have played 13 matches and know that a victory will be crucial to consolidate their position on the table.

The Highlanders and Chiefs enjoy playing the game at a high tempo but, before the break for the June Test window, the Chiefs were battling to maintain their high standards of previous seasons and suffered, surprisingly, big losses to the Hurricanes and Waratahs in their previous matches.

As the defending champions, the pressure is on the Chiefs and their coach Dave Rennie highlighted the importance of the match for his side in their quest to secure a play-off berth.

"This is a massive game and we have prepared really well," he told the Chiefs' official website.

"We realise the importance of this fixture and from here on in every match is like a play-off."

When firing on all cylinders, the Chiefs are unstoppable but Rennie has changed his starting line-up so often this season that there's been little continuity which makes their recent poor form hardly surprising.

One man, who will be determined to make an impact is centre Robbie Fruean, who has been sidelined - due to complications from heart surgery - since the Chiefs' 36-20 triumph over the Stormers in Round Five.

He teams up in midfield with Bundee Aki and Rennie expects big things from their partnership this weekend.

"[Fruean] gives us a bit of size compared to the backline we've been putting out the last few months and that excites us," said Rennie.

"He's a big man, carries well, is big, strong and fast but has been defending really well as well.

"It's a nice combination ... Bundee and Robbie might draw a bit of attention and Bundee might find a bit of space in and around that so we're really excited for Robbie.

"He's worked hard to get to this position and gets a crack."

Form: After battling in 2013, it looks like the Highlanders have timed their run to perfection this year. They suffered a narrow 32-30.defeat to the Crusaders in Round 16 after beating the Lions and the Hurricanes in their two previous matches. Before the break for the June internationals, the Chiefs were battling to stay in contention for a play-off position. Their last victory came in Round 13 when they beat the Blues 32-20 at Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth. After that, they had a bye before suffering heavy losses to the Hurricanes and Waratahs.

Recent results:

2014: Chiefs won 21-19, in Hamilton
2013: Chiefs won 19-7, in Hamilton
2013: Chiefs won 41-27, in Dunedin
2012: Highlanders won 23-19, in Hamilton
2012: Chiefs won 27-21 in Dunedin

Prediction: Expect fireworks as two of the tournament's most attacking teams go head to head. It will be close but the Highlanders will win by three points!

The teams:

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Chris King, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Lee Allan, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh.

Chiefs: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Dwayne Sweeney, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Tom Marshall, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Michael Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Jamie Mackintosh, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Matt Symons, 20 Tevita Koloamatangi, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Tim Nanai-Williams, 23 James Lowe.

Date: Friday, June 27
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19.35 local (07.35 GMT, 08.35 BST)
Referee: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Kane McBride (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
Television match official: Chris Wratt (New Zealand)