The Highlanders could do themselves and the Lions a big favour by beating the Chiefs in Dunedin on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The New Zealand conference title is still up for grabs. At this point, the Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes are all still in the running for the Kiwi crown.
The Crusaders will face the Hurricanes in Christchurch on Saturday. That game will conclude before the derby in Dunedin commences, and so both the Chiefs and Highlanders will know what's required to top the New Zealand table, and possibly the overall standings.
Another team that will be watching the New Zealand derbies with keen interest is the Lions. South Africa's form team will be hoping that the Chiefs fall to the Highlanders and that the Crusaders come short against the Hurricanes. If those results go their way, the Lions will simply need to beat the Jaguares in Buenos Aires to finish top of the overall standings and earn the right to host a potential final.
There's more than one reason to believe the Highlanders will boost the Lions', as well as their own, chances. The Highlanders won the 2015 tournament by playing a pragmatic brand of rugby. They've continued to employ that game plan in 2016, and have obtained some important wins as a result.
Who could forget the Highlanders' convincing win against the Chiefs in Hamilton earlier this year? The rampant attack-minded Chiefs came into that game as favourites, but were subdued by the Highlanders' physical defence and accurate kicking game. In the end, the Highlanders won by 13 points.
The Highlanders' brand of rugby is more conducive to playoffs and finals than that of the Chiefs. They are playing at home this weekend, and will be confident about their chances against a dangerous albeit limited Chiefs side.
Expect the Highlanders to play for territory. Expect them to win the collisions and breakdowns, and to drive the Chiefs back with a series of probing kicks and garryowens. Expect halfbacks Aaron Smith and Lima Sopoaga to control the tempo of the game.
When the Highlanders have a chance to counter-attack, expect them to run at a fractured Chiefs defence. The Highlanders boast some of the best finishers in the business in Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith, and 2016 has witnessed the rise of another explosive runner in Matt Faddes.
The New Zealand conference title will be on the line in this fixture. The Highlanders and the Chiefs, who have both already qualified for the playoffs, will also be jousting for a more favourable route to the final.
Much will depend on the outcome of the derby in Christchurch, but the winner in Dunedin could have the chance to host a quarter-final, and possibly a semi-final and final. One thing that is for certain, though, is that the loser of this clash will travel in the first round of the knockout stage, possibly to South Africa.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Chiefs 15, Highlanders 12
In Dunedin: Chiefs 7, Highlanders 6
STATS AND FACTS
– The Highlanders have won their last five games against the Chiefs, their longest ever winning streak against the franchise.
– The Highlanders have won their last three home games against the Chiefs, two of which came after trailing at the half-time break.
– The Highlanders will be playing at home for the first time in over two months; they've won 18 of their last 23 home games, with their five losses in that run all coming by seven points or fewer.
– Despite losing their last game against fellow New Zealand opposition, the Highlanders have won nine of their last 12 games against New Zealand sides without ever losing consecutive games in that streak.
– The Chiefs have won each of their last six games immediately after scoring 50 points or more in the round before.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (151)||Matt Faddes (9)||Ben Smith (853)||Tom Franklin (119)|
|Chiefs||Damian McKenzie (160)||Damian McKenzie (9)||Damian McKenzie (1147)||Sam Cane (164)|
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 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Alex Ainley, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Dan Pryor, 22 Te Aihe Toma, 23 Fletcher Smith.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Atu Moli, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Hiroshi Yamashita, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Sam McNicol.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assitant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Wratt (New Zealand)
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images