Preview: Chiefs v Highlanders

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Friday, March 6, 2015    James Mortimer    Getty Images

Friday, March 6, 19:35 (NZDT)

H2H: Played 23, Chiefs 15, Highlanders 8

Last match: Highlanders 29 Chiefs 25, 27.06.14 in Dunedin

Squad update: The biggest change for the two-time champions is the inclusion of Michael Fitzgerald, who replaces reigning World Player of the Year Brodie Retallick.

Elsewhere in the pack Johan Bardoul gets a start while Liam Messam has been bracketed with Maama Vaipulu. The All Blacks blindside will need to pass a final concussion test before being cleared to play.

Michael Allardice and Michael Leitch are in line to get their maiden Chiefs caps off the bench.

The bulk of the Highlanders changes are in the pack, with Josh Hohneck, Liam Coltman and Ma’afu Fia comprising a new look front row with Fia making his first starting team this season.

Tom Franklin who has started both games will make his impact from the bench as Joe Wheeler and Mark Reddish combine in the middle row.

Gareth Evans earns his first appearance in 2015 on the blindside with Elliot Dixon shifting to the openside role. In the backs, Lima Sopoaga returns after a one week break and combines with Shaun Treeby in the midfield. Marty Banks, who made his debut last week, returns to the bench with Jason Emery.

Form: The Chiefs are sitting pretty three rounds into the season with three straight wins, behind the Hurricanes at the top of the table due to points difference only.

A 23-18 victory over the Blues and a 19-17 nail biter against the Brumbies didn’t prepare any of us for what would happen next.

Despite a weakened Crusaders arriving in Hamilton, the two-time tournament winners showed no mercy with a comprehensive five tries to one 40-16 thrashing.

The Highlanders were forced to sit out the opening week of the season, and opened proceedings with a round two 20-26 loss to the red and blacks in Dunedin.

A week later, a strong Reds team would be accounted for 20-13 to give Jamie Joseph’s troops their opening victory of the 2015 campaign.

Key players: Home fans will be pleased to see Hika Elliot get a run, but attention will be on Sam Cane who put in a masterclass performance against the legend Richie McCaw last week.

The likes of Cane and Matt Symons gave their backs plenty of high quality possession against the Crusaders, which allowed Aaron Cruden to attack off the front foot.

With Sonny Bill Williams, James Lowe and Charlie Ngatai warming very nicely to proceedings, expect the Chiefs back division to back themselves against a smaller Highlanders rearguard.

The Highlanders pack looked capable against the Reds after a solid display against the Crusaders, but they will need to lift their game here.

The likes of Fia will need to provide trademark aggression against a Chiefs forward unit that was frothing at the mouth last week with a belligerent display.

Out wide Aaron Smith’s combination with Lima Sopoaga will be one to note considering the class of their opposites, while Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo provide a striking one two punch on the right flanks.