Kicking game key for Chiefs

Damian McKenzie and Aaron Cruden's tactical kicking will be crucial to the Chiefs' cause against the Rebels in Hamilton on Saturday, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.

The Chiefs were on a seven-game winning streak before being halted by the Highlanders a fortnight ago, courtesy of a superior tactical-kicking display by the defending champions.

The Chiefs went into that clash with the sole purpose of running the Highlanders off the park, which they did as indicated by their 435 running metres and 28 defenders beaten compared to the Highlanders' 356 and 10. But a strong kicking performance by Lima Sopoaga, Ben Smith and Aaron Smith proved to be the Chiefs' undoing, with McKenzie and Cruden unable to perform the same mastery.

Attacking rugby has been the cornerstone of the Chiefs' success this year, but against the Rebels, who won this fixture 16-15 last season, they will do well to complement their expansive brand with a territorial kicking game .

McKenzie and Cruden have been potent with ball in hand, but their influence can be reduced if a game takes on a more physical nature because their contestable kicking has been substandard. The pair, in tandem with scrumhalf Brad Weber, must produce a vastly improved performance with the boot against a Rebels outfit growing in confidence.

The Rebels also lost their last match, against the Brumbies, but will take heart from the fact that they beat the Chiefs in the last meeting between the sides. The Chiefs are still clear-cut favourites to win, but will have to play with more conviction to do so.

Chiefs coach Dave Rennie has made two changes to his starting lineup, with hooker Nathan Harris replacing Hika Elliot and inside centre Anton Lienert-Brown filling in for Charlie Ngatai, who has a concussion.

There are three changes to the Rebels team as they welcome back wing Tom English and centre Mitch Inman, while lock Sam Jeffries earns his first start of the season.

Overall: Chiefs 3, Rebels 1
In Hamilton: Chiefs 2, Rebels 0

– The Chiefs have won three of their four games against the Rebels, though the Melbourne-based team snapped a three-game losing streak with a win in the last fixture between these teams.
– Defeat to the Highlanders in round 11 ended a seven-game winning streak for the Chiefs; they've not lost consecutive home games in the same season since 2011.
– The Chiefs have scored three tries on the back of a lineout steal, the equal most of any team in the competition, while the Rebels have conceded the joint-most tries (three) after having their lineout stolen.
– The Rebels have conceded the second-fewest points of any team in the final quarter of matches this season (32), just one point more than the Waratahs.
– Sefa Naivalu has made an average gain of 9.7m from 26 carries so far this season, the most of any Australian-based player and third most overall (minimum 10 carries).
Source: Opta

Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres gained Most tackles
Chiefs Damian McKenzie (120) Damian McKenzie (7) Damian McKenzie (820) Sam Cane (113)
Rebels Jack Debreczeni (85) Reece Hodge (6) Sean McMahon (391) Sean McMahon (99)

Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 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 Nathan Harris, 1 Mitchell Graham.
Subs: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Kane Hames, 18 Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, 19 Michael Allardice, 20 Tom Sanders, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 Sam Vaka.

Rebels – 15 Mike Harris, 14 Sefa Naivalu, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Reece Hodge, 11 Tom English 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Nic Stirzaker (c), 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Sean McMahon, 6 Colby Fainga’a, 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Sam Jeffries, 3 Jamie Hagan, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith.

Subs: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Tim Metcher, 19 Culum Retallick, 20 Jordy Reid, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Jonah Placid, 23 Kotaro Matsushima.

Referees: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Angus Mabey (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

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Mariette Adams