All Blacks flyhalf contenders Aaron Cruden and Lima Sopoaga will go head to head when the Chiefs host the Highlanders on Saturday. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
This is the match of round 11. The two-time Super Rugby winners and one of the favourites to lift the trophy in 2016, the Chiefs, against the defending champion Highlanders.
And the outcome could be decided by the two No 10s, both of whom would love nothing more than to fill Dan Carter's boots against Wales in June.
At the moment, Cruden is the leading contender for that famous black jersey. Beauden Barrett has had his moments for the Hurricanes, but his inconsistent goal-kicking means he's more likely to be used as an impact player off the All Blacks bench in the big Tests than start.
Then there's Sopoaga, who impressed during his only Test appearance, against the Boks at Ellis Park last year, and was unlucky not to go to the World Cup. On Saturday, the 25-year-old has an opportunity to show Hansen why he deserves a second cap.
A player comparison on the Vodacom Stats App shows that Cruden has played 685 minutes of Super Rugby this season compared to Sopoaga's 586.
The Chiefs flyhalf has made 60 carries and 13 clean breaks compared to the Highlanders flyhalf's 51 and six respectively. As far as goal-kicking is concerned, Sopoaga has been successful with 33 out of 43 attempts (77%) while Cruden has only been required to have 10 shots at goal of which he slotted six, with Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie the team's first-choice goal-kicker.
Despite playing 99 minutes less, Sopoaga has kicked 66 times from hand compared to Cruden's 43. The Highlanders have an excellent kicking game, with Sopoaga's cross-kicks behind the wings, Aaron Smith's box kicks and Ben Smith's up-and-unders putting their opponents under pressure. The Chiefs prefer to keep the ball in hand, as shown by the fact that they have kicked 179 times this season compared to the Highlanders' 246.
The Chiefs will go into this match as favourites, having won seven of their eight matches to top the New Zealand conference and Australasian group. The Highlanders, like last season, have been inconsistent, with six wins and three defeats seeing them occupy fifth spot in the Australasian group and the last playoff spot.
The Chiefs have made two changes for Saturday's match, with winger James Lowe and inside centre Charlie Ngatai returning from injury.
Meanwhile, the Highlanders have been boosted by the return of winger Waisake Naholo, who fractured his leg during the opening round of Super Rugby, and utility back Marty Banks, who will start on the bench. However, flanker Shane Christie (hamstring), No 8 Liam Squire (hip) and inside centre Rob Thompson (concussion) have all been ruled out.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Chiefs 15, Highlanders 11
In Hamilton: Chiefs 8, Highlanders 5
STATS AND FACTS
– The Highlanders’ current run of four straight wins against the Chiefs snapped a Chiefs' run of four straight victories prior to that.
– Only two of the last five matches between these teams have been won by the team leading at half-time.
– The Chiefs have won their last seven matches in a row despite having only led at half-time in three of them (level once, trailing three times).
– Twelve of the past 16 matches when the Chiefs have hosted a fellow New Zealand team have been decided by fewer than 10 points; of those 16 matches Chiefs have won 12.
– The Highlanders have kept their opposition scoreless in the opening half of two of their last three matches away from home.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Chiefs||Damian McKenzie (120)||Damian McKenzie (7)||Damian McKenzie (724)||Sam Cane (100)|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (96)||Ben Smith, Matt Faddes (4)||Ben Smith (569)||Shane Christie (96)|
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Brad Weber, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Mitchell Graham.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Kane Hames, 19 Michael Allardice, 20 Maama Vaipulu, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Anton Lienert-Brown, 23 Sam Vaka.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Alex Ainley, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Dan Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Greg Plesants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 James Lentjes, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Teihorangi Walden.
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Angus Mabey (Australia)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images