Preview: Highlanders v Chiefs

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Friday, February 24, 2017    Getty Images

Round 1: Highlanders v Chiefs, 7.35pm, Friday 24 February, Forsyth-Barr Stadium, Dunedin

The Highlanders are on a hot run of form against the Chiefs with six straight wins. However, the Chiefs will be buoyed by the fact they have won their last four season opening clashes. The teams met twice in 2016 with the Highlanders picking up a 26-13 win in Hamilton and a 26-15 win in Dunedin.


While there is plenty of experience in the Chiefs squad, four players are also set to make their Super Rugby debuts at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Promising loose forward Mitch Karpik has been handed the number seven jersey after an ankle injury ruled Sam Cane out of the clash. Karpik had big wraps on him in the 2016 season before an unfortunate injury ended his season. In the midfield, Taranaki dynamo Johnny Faauli will go toe-to-toe with Malakai Fekitoa at centre. On the bench, youngsters Samisoni Taukei'aho (hooker) and Jonathan Taumateine (halfback) are poised to make their debut.


The clash between fullbacks Ben Smith and Damian McKenzie is simply mouth-watering. McKenzie led the majority of the 2016 Super Rugby attacking statistics while Smith has been regarded as the world’s premier fullback for a number of seasons. The challenge for McKenzie is to back up his scintillating 2016 form while Smith seems to get better with every year. Expect both players to counter attack at any opportunity.
This match could also double as a virtual All Blacks trial with the amount of current All Blacks squaring off across the park. One of the most crucial battles will come at half back and first five-eighth where the Highlanders pair of Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga take on the Chiefs duo of Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden. While Smith and Sopoaga will look to ignite the Highlanders potent outside backs, Kerr-Barlow and Cruden pose genuine danger with ball in hand themselves and will need to be watched closely.

This is a match that could literally go either way. Last season there was little to separate the sides and there is generally not much in any New Zealand derby. For the interest of not sitting on the fence, we tip the Highlanders to take this one out in front of their home fans – but only just.

Highlanders: Ben Smith (c), Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Rob Thompson, Tevita Li, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith; Liam Squire, James Lentjes, Gareth Evans, Tom Franklin, Alex Ainley, Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown. Reserves: Adrian Smith, Craig Millar, Guy Millar, Jackson Hemopo, Elliot Dixon, Kayne Hammington, Fletcher Smith, Matt Faddes.

Chiefs: Damian McKenzie, Toni Pulu, Anton Lienert-Brown, Johnny Faauli, James Lowe, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow; Liam Messam, Mitch Karpik, Taleni Seu, Brodie Retallick, Dominic Bird, Nepo Laulala, Hika Elliot, Kane Hames. Reserves: Samisoni Taukei'aho, Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, Atu Moli, Mitchell Brown, Lachlan Boshier, Jonathan Taumateine, Tim Nanai-Williams, Shaun Stevenson.