After an all-Australian round last weekend the rest of the franchises kick-off their Super XV campaigns this weekend, with the reigning champion Chiefs travelling to Dunedin to face the Highlanders at the Forsyth Barr Stadium.
While the Chiefs have lost some key individuals the Highlanders have recruited heavily over the off-season, promising Friday night’s clash will be a mouth-watering affair. To get the low-down on what the outcome might be we’ve sought the expert advice of two highly passionate fans – die-hard Highlanders supporter Scott from SuperRugbyTips, and staunch Chiefs’ man Mike, from RugbyFix.
What are you hoping to see from your side in their first hit out?
I am looking for the Highlanders to master their set pieces. They have traditionally been strong at lineouts and scrums, but in the last few seasons they have struggled to really nail this. There are plenty of new faces in the squad and it would be great to see the experienced new All Black recruits like Tony Woodcock and Ma’a Nonu lead the way for their new team. I am also looking for some fireworks from stand-in skipper Hosea Gear on the wing following some ominous pre-season form.
In this game I’d like to see the same commitment from the forwards that became the hallmark of their game last year. Also, everyone in Chiefs country is worried about coping with the loss of SBW, so it would be great to see that the Chiefs have found a way to compensate. Oh, and no more injuries to the backline please!
What strengths does your side bring to the game?
The Highlanders under Jamie Joseph play with plenty of aggression at the breakdown. This has seen them secure plenty of turnovers, but wears them out later on in the season as it is a very physical style of play. The Highlanders have traditionally been solid upfront and with plenty of All Blacks in their side, there is no reason why they can’t not only get dominance in the forwards, but also cut some capers in the backs.
The Chiefs could have one of the strongest loose forward trios in the competition if Fritz Lee steps up to his potential this year. Liam Messam was outstanding last year, as were Latimer and Cane rotating at openside. The tight five were expected to be a major weakness last year, but ended up being one of the side’s strengths. They’ll be even stronger one year on. The pack should be very well drilled under coach Tom Coventry.
What weaknesses do the opposition have which your side will look to exploit?
The Chiefs are the defending champions, but since they have an injury crisis in the midfield they will be forced to field a makeshift pairing which hopefully Ma’a Nonu in particular can look to exploit. Outside of Aaron Cruden, the Chiefs’ backline looks very inexperienced compared with this Highlanders team while their tight five will definitely miss the dynamic Sona Taumalolo.
The Highlanders have a good side – their starting 15 is very strong all over the park. However, Hore is suspended and Thorn is injured so their forward pack may be able to be exploited.
Who will be your side’s key player (s)?
I think that Ma’a Nonu has the ability to add spark to the home team and exploit the potential weakness in the Chiefs midfield. John Hardie will be crucial as he goes head to head with All Black Sam Cane. The Highlanders have a big forward pack and Hardie’s speed to the breakdown will be crucial to his side retaining possession.
Aaron Cruden played almost every minute of last year’s campaign and will be just as integral this year. However, the big question mark will be over the Chiefs’ midfield. The inexperienced Bundee Aki and the out-of-position Tim Nanai-Williams are an unknown entity in the midfield. Although very fast, they are decidedly undersized compared to the Sonny Bill Williams and Richard Kahui combo of last year. How well they step up against the Highlanders will be key for the Chiefs.
How will the game unfold?
The Highlanders must win this match. They are playing at home, inside the magnificent Forsyth Barr Stadium in front of “the Zoo” and thousands of screaming students during Orientation Week. Derby matches are traditionally battles and there will be some mistakes and plenty of tired players given it is the opening match of the regular season. Highlanders to win 23-18
This is tough to call, but unfortunately I’m going to have to pick the Highlanders. The Chiefs have too many injuries in their backline. Especially in the covered stadium in front a massive crowd, the Highlanders will be able to exploit the green Chiefs’ midfield with Nonu, Smith and Gear. I think it’ll be a close game, with the two forward packs fiercely battling it out, but the Chiefs backline will be broken a few too many times by the Highlanders to keep up. 25-19 to the Highlanders