Preview: Highlanders v Chiefs

Date published: June 19 2015

The Highlanders will be desperate to make it four straight wins against the Chiefs when they collide in their Super Rugby Qualifier on Saturday.

After four losses on the spin between 2012 and 2014, the improving Highlanders now seem to hold something of a hoodoo over the two-time winners.

Their form over the last two years has most definitely been on an upward curve and with home field advantage, they enter the game as favourites.

Backline stars such as Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa have been supported by the showings of Patrick Osborne, Richard Buckman, Shaun Treeby and Waisake Naholo while forward efforts from somewhat unknowns in international rugby have bested other established packs.

Due to this, their entertaining brand is now being mixed with real solidity up front and it's paying dividends as they host this derby showdown.

Big game mentality may be the sticking point for the Highlanders as they've not progressed past this stage since the new format was introduced. In contrast the Chiefs are professionals in the Finals Series stage and, despite not having Aaron Cruden, are still in with a shout of a third title. However, they will be the first to admit that they have not been performing how they would have liked which is why they are on the road.

In their corner is the fact they have won five of their eight fixtures overall when they have made it to the post-season, while the Highlanders have won just one of six which came in the 1999 semi-final – their most recent Finals Series match in Dunedin. Can they take the next key step?

What we might expect is the Chiefs being eager to soak up all the Highlanders can throw at them before striking with counter punches, with the Waikato team boasting the second strongest defence in 2015. Meanwhile, only two sides scored more tries than the Highlanders (54) this season.

It's all set up for a humdinger at Forsyth Barr Stadium and in particular The Zoo, which will be hungry to tip the scales in the hosts' corner.

The last time these teams met: The Chiefs were given a rugby lesson from the Highlanders in Round 16 as in a wet Invercargill they dominated the game, winning 36-9. The bonus-point victory saw tries from Patrick Osborne, Waisake Naholo, Richard Buckman and Ben Smith, with all of those out of the top drawer. Brodie Retallick, Liam Messam, Aaron Cruden, Sonny Bill Williams and James Lowe were all absent due to injury for the Chiefs.

Players to watch: The return of Malakai Fekitoa is a significant boost to the Highlanders as the season reaches its business end. While he has not been as effective as in 2014, his presence in the midfield will undoubtedly help the home side's cause. Shaun Treeby is the unlucky man to drop to the bench but he will make an impact when he comes on at 12 in the second-half. Elsewhere another returnee, Nasi Manu, will add plenty.

For the Chiefs the form of Brodie Retallick has been exceptional once again this season as his workrate and skillset put him on a different level to many of his rivals. In the backline a lot rests on the shoulders of fly-half Andrew Horrell but he rarely lets the Chiefs down and won't mind the pressure.

Team news: Malakai Fekitoa (groin) and Nasi Manu (shoulder) will make their returns from injury but John Hardie has been ruled out in the back-row due to a rib problem. Dan Pryor moves over to the openside flank while Mark Reddish is back in the second-row, partnering Alex Ainley. The final tweak from the starting XV that beat the Blues in Auckland sees Brendon Edmonds back at loosehead at the expense of Daniel Lienert-Brown.

Sonny Bill Williams and Tim Nanai-Williams will link up in midfield on Saturday as Charlie Ngatai is ruled out with concussion. Andrew Horrell has got the nod at fly-half as Damian McKenzie shifts to full-back in the absence of the injured Tom Marshall. Michael Fitzgerald shifts to six.

Form: The Highlanders enter in decent form as while three straight wins were interrupted by that loss to the Hurricanes, they knew that a bonus-point win at the Blues would be enough to seal a home tie which is why they went second-string in Napier. Last week's win in Auckland was more like the Highlanders we have seen this season as again the non-stars such as John Hardie, Dan Pryor and Richard Buckman made real impressions.

The Chiefs meanwhile have been blowing hot and cold this year, typified by the LWLWL record in the last five games. Their most recent loss came against the Hurricanes but there is no shame in that and they have shown time and time again at the business end, they cannot be written off. If they bring their best they are a match for any team as the likes of Liam Messam, Sonny Bill Williams and Brodie Retallick have been there before.

Prediction: With their home ground rocking and a good run of recent form in these meetings, we are backing the Highlanders to win this one by 8!

Previous results:

2015: Highlanders won 36-9 in Dunedin
2015: Highlanders won 20-17 in Hamilton
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 won 23-19 in Hamilton

The teams:

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Latta, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Shaun Treeby.

Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 James Lowe, 10 Andrew Horrell, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Liam Messam (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Michael Fitzgerald, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Matt Symons, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Jamie Mackintosh, 19 Mitchell Crosswell, 20 Michael Leitch, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Seta Tamanivalu.

Date: Saturday, June 20
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19:35 local, 17:35 AEST, 09:35 SAST
Referee: Chris Pollock
Assistant referees: Nick Briant, Mike Fraser
TMO: Aaron Paterson