Aaron Cruden may have been off-colour for the All Blacks, but he'll still be the key man for the Chiefs' visit to Dunedin on Friday, writes BRENTON CHELIN.
Cruden's indifferent form at flyhalf for the All Blacks left many calling for Beauden Barrett to be given a fair crack at the No 10 jersey, but the Chiefs will be glad to have a fit Cruden for the run-in. Having missed much of the season with a broken thumb, a return to the Chiefs starting XV will surely precede a return to form.
The defending champions have left themselves with a mountain to climb, and nothing less than a win over the Highlanders will do if they wish to keep their title hopes alive.
It was Cruden who played a pivotal role when the teams last met, a 21-19 victory for the Chiefs. It was his pinpoint cross-field kick that helped set up a late Charlie Ngatai try, before slotting the match-winning conversion. It sealed their fourth consecutive victory over the Highlanders, and coach Dave Rennie will be hoping his team can make it five on the spin in Dunedin on Friday.
He has made a number of changes to the side that succumbed to the Waratahs in their last fixture. Robbie Fruean returns to add some bulk to the midfield and his battle with Malakai Fekitoa is one to keep an eye on. Elsewhere Augustine Palu has recovered from injury to take his place at scrumhalf while Gareth Anscombe will start at fullback.
Meanwhile, the Highlanders will call on their All Blacks backs to inspire them to victory with Aaron Smith, Fekitoa and Ben Smith all set to start on Friday. In the forward pack, hooker Brayden Mitchell and lock Tom Franklin will start after impressing against the New Zealand Barbarians last weekend.
HEAD TO HEADS
Overall: Highlanders 8, Chiefs 14
In Dunedin: Highlanders 4, Chiefs 6
CRUDEN'S STATS THAT MATTER
32 – The number of points he scored for the All Blacks during the series with England
4 – The number of defenders he beat during the series
2 – The number of clean breaks he made during the series
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Shane Christie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Chris King, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 Lee Allan, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Chiefs – 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Dwayne Sweeney, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Tom Marshall, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Michael Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Jamie Mackintosh, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Matt Symons, 20 Tevita Koloamatangi, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Tim Nanai-Williams, 23 James Lowe.
Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images