Chiefs midfielder Charlie Ngatai will test the Highlanders defence in Hamilton on Friday, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
While Sonny Bill Williams has been the centre of attention at the Chiefs this season, the man outside him deserves at least some of the spotlight.
Ngatai has scored two tries in three matches so far, and his other stats are just as impressive. He's made the second most clean breaks (five), beaten the second most defenders (10) and made the second most offloads (six).
The 24-year-old has clearly kicked on from a successful 2014 that saw him lift the New Zealand Cup with Taranaki and captain the Maori All Blacks on their tour of Japan.
Ngatai's head-to-head battle with one of the Highlanders' biggest attacking threats, Malakai Fekitoa, could have a big impact on the outcome of Friday's match.
After two unconvincing wins against the Blues in Albany (23-18) and Brumbies in New Plymouth (19-17), the Chiefs hit their straps against the Crusaders in Hamilton last weekend with a 40-16 victory. It was the first time they had got a try-scoring bonus point against the Saders and the first time the seven-time champions had conceded six tries in a match since 2004.
That win came at a cost, though, with Brodie Retallick suffering a shoulder injury that will sideline him for up to six weeks. That sees Michael Fitzgerald moving to the second row with Johan Bardoul coming in at blindside flank. Captain Liam Messam (concussion) is a doubtful starter and has been bracketed with Maama Vaipulu at No 8. In the only change to the backline, Hosea Gear replaces Bryce Heem on the right wing.
After a round-one bye, the Highlanders were beaten 26-20 by the Crusaders in Dunedin, before bouncing back with a 20-13 win against the Reds, also at home. Friday's trip to Hamilton will be their biggest test to date and provide a good indication of how far they can expect to go in this year's competition.
The Highlanders have made seven changes for the match, including the return of Lima Sopoaga at flyhalf and a new front row of Josh Hohneck, Liam Coltman and Ma'afu Fia.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Chiefs 15, Highlanders 8
In Hamilton: Chiefs 8, Highlanders 4
STATS AND FACTS
– The Chiefs won their first three games of the season in 2010 and 2014, but went on to lose their fourth game in each of those years.
– The Highlanders (94.1%) and Chiefs (93.8%) rank first and second respectively when it comes to lineout success rate in 2015.
– No side has shipped more penalties per game than the Chiefs this season (12.7) and they have benefited from fewer opposition penalties per game (8.7) than any other team as well.
– The Highlanders rank second for turnovers won this season, with an average of nine per game so far. The Dunedin-based side has seen their opponents maintain a ruck success rate of 91%; no team in Vodacom Super Rugby has had their opponents average a lower success rate at the ruck.
– Charlie Ngatai and Wasiake Naholo are two of only six players in Super Rugby to beat at least 10 defenders so far this season.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Chiefs||Aaron Cruden (29)||Charlie Ngatai (2)||James Lowe (313)||Matt Symons (31)|
|Highlanders||Marty Banks (12)||Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Waisake Naholo||Waisake Naholo (117)||John Hardie (19)|
Chiefs – 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Hosea Gear, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Liam Messam/Maama Vaipulu, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Johan Bardoul, 5 Michael Fitzgerald, 4 Matt Symons, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Mitchell Graham, 19 Michael Allardice, 20 Michael Leitch/Maama Vaipulu, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Damian McKenzie, 23 Andrew Horrell.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malikai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Elliot Dixon, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Josh Hohneck.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.
Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images