Sonny Bill Williams will mark his return to Vodacom Super Rugby with a game-shaping display in the New Zealand derby between the Blues and Chiefs, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Blues produced a mixed performance in the pre-season, losing to the Chiefs 41-20 in Whangarei, and winning 32-29 against the Hurricanes in Albany. That hitout against the Chiefs may be a sign of what's to come in the season opener against the same opposition in Auckland this Saturday.
The Chiefs went down 38-36 to the Waratahs in their second pre-season match. Nevertheless, there is good reason to believe they will finish on the right side of the result this weekend.
Williams has returned after a stint with the Sydney Roosters in Australia's National Rugby League. The powerful centre played a massive role for the Chiefs in their title-winning campaign in 2013, and will be expected to make a similar impact this season.
As the stats suggest, the Chiefs were more effective from broken play in 2014 than they were from the set phases. However, with Williams back in the mix, they will now have the option of attacking the opposition midfield. Williams is a formidable specimen, and rarely loses a collision. He'll give the Chiefs extra momentum, and his ability to offload in the tackle will create further opportunities for the Hamilton side's dangerous outside backs.
In 2014, the Blues' defence was good in the sense that not many tackles were missed. However, on this occasion, they may struggle to prevent the Chiefs' ball-carriers from gaining ground, and eventually crossing the tryline.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Blues 10, Chiefs 13
In Auckland: Blues 5, Chiefs 7
STATS THAT MATTER
7 – The number of consecutive matches the Chiefs have won against the Blues
12.8 – the number of penalties the Chiefs conceded per match in 2014 (Rank 1)
9 – The number of tries the Chiefs scored from first phase in 2014 (Rank 15)
88% – The Blues' tackle efficiency in 2014 (Rank 1)
Blues – 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Charles Piutau, 13 George Moala/Hamish Northcot, 12 Francis Saili, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Jerome Kaino (c), 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Subs: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Luke Braid, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 Hamish Northcott/Ben Lam.
Chiefs – 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 James Lowe, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Maama Vaipulu, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Johan Bardoul, 5 Mike Fitzgerald, 4 Matt Symons (c), 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Jamie Mackintosh, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Michael Allardice, 20 Tevita Koloamatangi, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Bryce Heem.
Photo: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images