Preview: Chiefs v Highlanders

Date published: March 5 2015

Unbeaten after three games, the Chiefs welcome the Highlanders to Hamilton on Friday looking to move clear at the top of the standings.

The two-time champions are level with the Hurricanes at the summit of the overall table (one point ahead of the Stormers) but with the team from Wellington enjoying a bye this weekend, the Chiefs are in a prime position to take control of the New Zealand Conference.

Kiwi derbies are anything but predictable though, so fans in Waikato shouldn't count their chickens just yet as the Highlanders arrive in decent form having picked up a win and losing bonus point in their opening two games.

No side has shipped more penalties per game than the Chiefs this season (12.7) and they have benefitted from fewer opposition penalties per game (8. 7) than any other team as well.

But what the Chiefs bleed in points from the tee, they make up for on attack and they continue to top the charts for offloads. The Highlanders have one of the worst tackling success in the competition, so the scenario seems ripe for counterattack tries.

The Chiefs shouldn't count on getting cheap possession at rucks tough. The Highlanders rank second for turnovers won this season, with an average of nine per game so far.

The Dunedin side also have the best stats in terms of keeping ruck success down. The battle at lineout time should also be interesting with the Highlanders (94.1%) and Chiefs (93.8%) ranking first and second respectively when it comes to lineout success rate in 2015.

The last time these team met: Despite being outscored three tries to two, the Highlanders edged the Chiefs 29-25 in a Round 17 thriller in Dunedin last year, all but ending the Chiefs' hopes of defending their Super Rugby crown. Ben Smith's second half try put the hosts a 26-13 ahead although the Chiefs scored two tries in the final quarter to set up a grandstand finish.

Players to watch: Chiefs centre Charlie Ngatai and Highlanders wing Wasiake Naholo are two of only six players in Super Rugby to beat at least 10 defenders so far this season

Team news: The Chiefs have made two changes as ex-All Blacks wing Hosea Gear replaces Bryce Heem. Michael Fitzgerald moves from flank to the second row to fill the gap left by the injured Brodie Retallick. Fitzgerald's replacement in the number six jersey is Johan Bardoul, who impressed when coming off the bench last weekend. The Chiefs are also awaiting concussion clearance on Liam Messam.

Form: The Chiefs impressed as the romped to a 40-16 victory over the Crusaders last week having beaten the Blues and Brumbies in the opening two rounds. The Chiefs won their first three games of the season in 2010 and 2014, but went on to lose their fourth game in each of those seasons. The Highlanders bounced back from a narrow loss to the Crusaders to beat the resurgent Reds 20-13 at home last week.

Predictions: After what the Chiefs did to the Crusaders last week and considering this is the Highlanders first away game of the year, the hosts must be considered the big favourites. Chiefs by twelve points.

Previous results:

2014: Highlanders won 29-25 in Dunedin
2014: Chiefs won 21-19 in Hamilton
2013: Chiefs won 19-7 in Hamilton
2013: Chiefs won 41-27 in Dunedin
2012: Chiefs won 27-21 in Dunedin
2012: Highlanders 23-19 in Hamilton

The teams:

Chiefs: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Hosea Gear, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Liam Messam/Maama Vaipulu, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Johan Bardoul, 5 Mike Fitzgerald, 4 Matt Symons, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Mitchell Graham, 19 Michael Allardice, 20 Maama Vaipulu/Michael Leitch, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Damian McKenzie, 23 Andrew Horrell.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Elliot Dixon, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Ma’afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Josh Hohneck.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.

Date: Friday, March 6
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19.35 local (06.35 GMT/ 17.35 AEST/ 08.35 SAST)
Referee: Nick Briant
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser, Shane McDermott
TMO: Chris Wratt