Preview: Highlanders v Chiefs

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Friday, June 27, 2014    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Friday, June 27, 2014, 19:35pm (NZT)

Head to head: Played 22, Highlanders 7, Chiefs 15

Last time: Highlanders 19-21 Chiefs (March 1, 2014)

Squad update: The Highlanders have kept themselves busy over the break, playing a friendly against a Barbarians team, a valuable hit out for the extended squad which has led to head coach Jamie Joseph promoting Brayden Mitchell and Tom Franklin to the starting side. TJ Ioane picked up an ankle injury ruling him out, but the form of returning All Blacks will generously offset that. Ben Smith was arguably the best in black throughout June.

The Chiefs have benefitted from Test coach Steve Hansen’s insistence that Aaron Cruden run the All Blacks cutter, and he will be in fine form alongside the likes of Brodie Retallick, who was a giant against England last month. The return centre Robbie Fruean and halfback Augustine Pulu is a plus for a side who cannot afford another loss.

Form: While the Highlanders sit fifth on the table compared to the Chiefs position in eighth, just three competition points separate the outfits so the result, and perhaps a bonus point or two, will have a significant bearing on the two franchise’s seasons.

Two losses to the hosts has the dreaded ‘late fade’ on the cards for the Highlanders, they need to notch what would be their sixth victory in eight games at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

The Chiefs, who dominate the rivalry including four straight wins (two of those in Dunedin) enter the game with the same run of form as the home team, but with just three triumphs in their last ten, the champions are desperately seeking a full house of points here.

Key Players: Ben Smith continues his form that would have him currently ranked among the world’s best backline exponents, while Aaron Smith was at his sharp passing best last week for the All Blacks, intriguingly Hamilton was where the two Smiths, along with Malakai Fekitoa, were obvious figures for the World Champions. Keen to attack this season, as always the Highlanders strengths come from their appetite for hard work in the trenches.

Usually a trait epitomised by the Chiefs, but their graft over recent seasons has led to the team looking vulnerable in 2014, not really helped in any way by what has potentially been the closest New Zealand Conference in history. Cruden’s return is massive for the team, but it will be up to the visitor’s pack to pave the way here, many frontal operations have been embarrassed by the honest Highlanders set piece.

Key matchup: Fekitoa versus Fruean, two dreadnought centres who play in different circumstances, with Malakai celebrating a remarkable run that now has him ranked as an All Black, while Robbie has continued to have struggles with his health.

Both 100kg plus ball carriers will be the spearhead of their respective offences, and who comes out on top could have a big say in the outcome of the first of two New Zealand derbies for Round 17.

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.