Highlanders captain Ben Smith will showcase his attacking skills against the Chiefs in Invercargill on Saturday. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
At 1.86m and 93kg, the fullback is smaller than most players in the back three. You won't see Smith running over the opposition like teammate Waisake Naholo or using blistering pace to run around a defender. What you will see is an intelligent player who uses footwork and acceleration to beat defenders.
The 28-year-old has made the fifth most carries (138), clean breaks (16) and running metres (887) in Vodacom Super Rugby this season, and has beaten the sixth most defenders (35). Smith is also good under the high ball and has caught 37 kicks.
Ben and scrumhalf Aaron Smith are the Highlanders' two most valuable players, and it's no co-incidence that their 31-18 loss to the Brumbies came when the duo were rested. But both Smiths will be available for Saturday's New Zealand derby against the Chiefs.
Just one log point separates these teams, with the Chiefs second in the Kiwi conference and fourth on the overall standings, and the Highlanders third and fifth respectively.
While the winner of this clash will take a big step towards clinching second spot in the conference, the loser will stay in the top six on the combined log and still have their play-off fate in their hands.
The Highlanders will go into the game as favourites, having beaten the Chiefs 20-17 in Hamilton in March and won last year's match between these sides in Dunedin 29-25.
The hosts will again be without co-captain Nasi Manu for Saturday's match, as the No 8 has not recovered from a shoulder injury. There are two changes to the team that beat the Force 23-3 in Perth, with lock Mark Reddish (hand injury) replaced by Tom Franklin and Richard Buckman returning to the midfield in place of Shaun Treeby.
The Chiefs won't have the services of captain Liam Messam, because of a shoulder injury, with Maama Vaipulu starting on the blindside flank. In other changes to the side that beat the Bulls 34-20 in Rotorua, Pauliasi Manu and Michael Fitzgerald come in at loosehead prop and No 5 lock respectively, while Marty McKenzie will start at flyhalf with brother, Damian, shifting to fullback.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Chiefs 15, Highlanders 9
In Dunedin/Invercargill: Chiefs 7, Highlanders 4
STATS AND FACTS
– The Highlanders have won their last two matches against the Chiefs, a feat they had not previously achieved since 2000, when they won four in a row (1997-2000).
– Two of the last three meetings between these sides have seen the side losing at half-time go on to win the match.
– The Chiefs have made more offloads per game than any other team this season (18.2), while the Highlanders have allowed their opponents the most in 2015 (13.3).
– The Chiefs have conceded a competition-high 17.7 turnovers per game this season, while opponents of the Highlanders have conceded more than against any other opponent (18.4).
– The Highlanders have scored more tries than any other team in the 20 minutes leading up to half-time (14), however the Chiefs have conceded the joint fewest in the same quarter (three).
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (124)||Waisake Naholo (8)||Waisake Naholo (1,037)||Elliot Dixon (113)|
|Chiefs||Aaron Cruden (93)||Charlie Ngatai, James Lowe (5)||James Lowe (745)||Sam Cane (145)|
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Dan Pryor, 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Joe Latta, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Hosea Gear, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Bryce Heem, 10 Marty McKenzie, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Maama Vaipulu, 5 Michael Fitzgerald, 4 Ross Filipo, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Mitchell Graham, 19 Brian Alainu’uese, 20 Mitchell Crosswell, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 Tim Nanai-Williams.
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Shane McDermott (New Zealand), Mike Lash (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)
Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images