Aaron and Ben Smith will have vital roles to play for the Highlanders against the Chiefs in Saturday's play-off qualifier in Dunedin. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
The importance of the Smiths to their franchise's cause is evident by their absence. When the duo were rested this season, Jamie Joseph's men lost 31-18 to the Brumbies in Canberra and 56-20 to the Hurricanes in Napier. The Highlanders have been at their best when they've had Aaron at scrumhalf and Ben at fullback.
Aaron is the best No 9 in New Zealand and the one player the All Blacks can't do without, with his bullet-like passing crucial to their fast-paced game. The 26-year-old has scored five tries in this year's Vodacom Super Rugby tournament, and made five try assists. He also has an accurate kicking game, putting boot to ball 118 times, more than any other scrumhalf.
Ben's Super Rugby stats are just as impressive. He's made the sixth most running metres (997) and beaten the sixth most defenders (43) this season, scoring six tries. And like most New Zealanders, he has the ability to offload in the tackle, having done so on 24 occasions in 2015. He may not be the quickest, but he uses excellent footwork and acceleration to get past an opponent.
The Highlanders will go into Saturday's play-off as favourites. They have won both of their matches against the Chiefs this season – 20-17 in Hamilton and 36-9 in Dunedin – and their last two home matches in this fixture, with a 29-25 victory last year.
The Dunedin-based franchise has been boosted by the return of outside centre Malakai Fekitoa and No 8 Nasi Manu from groin and shoulder injuries respectively.
In other changes to the team that bashed the Blues 44-7 in Auckland, Dan Pryor will start at openside flank, Mark Reddish returns to the second row and Brendon Edmonds is back at loosehead prop.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, have lost two key backs for this match in outside centre Charlie Ngatai (concussion) and fullback Tom Marshall (knee). That sees Tim Nanai-Williams join cousin Sonny Bill Williams in midfield, with Andrew Horrell starting at flyhalf and Damian McKenzie shifting to fullback.
Among the forwards, Sam Cane is back at openside flank, having been rested last weekend, with Michael Fitzgerald moving to blindside flank and skipper Liam Messam to No 8. Hooker Hika Elliot is also back after a week's rest and will play his 100th Super Rugby match.
Saturday's game is set to be played in front of a sold-out crowd of 23,000, which would top the 22,500 that attended the Highlanders-Crusaders fixture in 2013.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Chiefs 15, Highlanders 10
In Dunedin: Chiefs 7, Highlanders 5
STATS AND FACTS
– The Highlanders have won their last four matches in a row at home, with three of those wins coming by 18 points or more.
– Despite losing on their last two trips to Dunedin, the Chiefs had won six of their seven away meetings against the Highlanders before that.
– Both these sides have played in the qualifying play-offs once before, with both losing by fewer than five points last year.
– The Chiefs, however, have won five of their eight games overall when they have made it to the post-season, while the Highlanders have won just one of six, which came in the 1999 semi-final – their most recent play-off match in Dunedin.
– Only the Brumbies conceded fewer tries than the Chiefs this season (27), while only two sides scored more tries than the Highlanders (54).
– The Chiefs have averaged the most offloads per game this season (17.5), while the Highlanders have allowed the most per game (13.6).
– The Chiefs have conceded the most turnovers per game this season (18.4), while opponents of the Highlanders have conceded more turnovers than against any other team (19.4).
– The Highlanders have scored a try in every game this season, while the only game the Chiefs emerged tryless from in the regular season was against the Highlanders in round 16.
– The Highlanders also restricted the Chiefs to their lowest metre gain (333), defenders beaten (seven) and joint fewest clean breaks (five) in that game.
– Only TJ Perenara has scored more tries than Waisake Naholo this season (nine), who also boasts the third highest metres gained (1,194).
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Highlanders||Lima Sopoaga (159)||Waisake Naholo (9)||Waisake Naholo (1,194)||Elliot Dixon (140)|
|Chiefs||Aaron Cruden (93)||Charlie Ngatai (6)||James Lowe (783)||Sam Cane (173)|
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Mark Reddish, 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 Shaun Treeby.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 James Lowe, 10 Andrew Horrell, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Liam Messam (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Michael Fitzgerald, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Matt Symons, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Jamie Mackintosh, 19 Mitchell Crosswell, 20 Michael Leitch, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Marty McKenzie, 23 Seta Tamanivalu.
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)
Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images