Preview: Chiefs v Highlanders

Headlining the Round 11 matches is this juicy blockbuster between the in-form Chiefs and champions the Highlanders.

These two look destined for the play-offs but the regular season is far from over yet, especially given the race to secure top spot in the New Zealand Conference.

Injuries in recent weeks have hit the Highlanders hard but there's a reprieve of sorts this Saturday with the long-awaited return of Waisake Naholo to the back three.

Unfortunately just as Naholo comes back, Shane Christie and Liam Squire, the two back row dynamos, are both ruled out at a time where they are sorely needed against the in-form Sam Cane and Michael Leitch.

Losses for the Highlanders either side of their bye week to the Reds and Sharks both shouldn't have happened considering the talent Jamie Joseph has at his disposal, but last week's win over the Brumbies reminded us just how good this side really is.

A win in Hamilton is absolutely vital for the Highlanders' hopes of topping the New Zealand Conference, but they should take heart from their recent encounters.

The Highlanders are in a current run of four straight wins against the Chiefs, which snapped a Chiefs run of four straight victories prior to that.

Those Highlanders supporters searching for an advantage this week should also look to the scrum, where a 96 success percent rate hold sway over the Chiefs' 90 percent.

We've become so used to the Chiefs dominating matches this season that last week's win over the Sharks was a much-need reality check, and in fairness normally this year after scoring two early tries Dave Rennie's men have run away with contests.

Having to scrap to a narrow win therefore is the perfect wake-up call as the Chiefs head into the back nine of the regular season in pole position.

The key to their success? Not panicking when results aren't going their way. The Chiefs have won their last seven matches in a row despite having only led at half-time in three of them (level once, trailing three times).

Add in the potency of Charlie Ngatai and James Lowe to a backline that's been firing all year and the Chiefs look very tough to take down on home soil.

The lineout could be better, but with Brodie Retallick, Dominic Bird and Hika Elliot all over their respective ailments that area of the set-piece should pick up quickly.

All the pieces of the puzzle appear to be in place. Losing on Saturday though would considerably derail their bid for a third title in five years.

current run of four straight wins against the Chiefs
snapped a Chiefs run of four straight victories prior to that.
current run of four straight wins against the Chiefs
snapped a Chiefs run of four straight victories prior to that.

The last time these teams met: Waisake Naholo broke Jeff Wilson's Highlanders' record for the most tries in a season as the Highlanders won their quarter-final with the Chiefs in Dunedin 24-14. Naholo scored twice with Lima Sopoaga doing the rest thanks to four penalties and a conversion. Three penalties from Andrew Horrell had the Chiefs ahead 9-8 at the break before the Highlanders clinched the result despite Brodie Retallick's second half try.

Players to watch: Who did the Chiefs miss in that quarter-final last year? Aaron Cruden. The All Black is getting better with every game in 2016, starting to show more flashes of his old self when attacking the gainline and striking the ball well too from the tee with four penalties out of five against the Sharks.

Matt Faddes meanwhile has been an everyman for the Highlanders so far whether used on the wings or at full-back, and now he gets a run at outside centre. Faddes defensively faces a challenge up against the physical Seta Tamanivalu, but at the same time if his quick footwork and speed can get Faddes a half step over the Chiefs defence then watch out.

Team news: For the Chiefs there are just two changes to the starting XV that secured a 24-22 win over the Sharks in New Plymouth last Friday, with dynamic winger Lowe and influential centre Ngatai returning from injury to start. There are further changes in the reserves with Michael Allardice and Maama Vaipulu recovering from injury to re-join the 23. Counties Manukau utility back Sam Vaka is poised to make his Super Rugby debut off the bench. 

Highlanders winger Naholo returns from injury after being out with a broken leg since the Round One match against the Blues. Faddes, will get his first start at centre after previously playing on the wing and at full-back and Malakai Fekitoa moves to inside centre. The timely return of Marty Banks from injury sees him take the place of an unlucky Hayden Parker who sustained a season ending knee injury at training last week. In the forwards, co-captain Shane Christie will be sidelined for a few weeks with a hamstring injury. He is replaced at open side by Dan Pryor, Luke Whitelock returns at eight with James Lentjes making his first appearance for the season on the bench.

Form: The Chiefs are unbeaten since their 32-36 loss at home to the Lions back in Round Two, meaning they have won seven matches in a row since then against the Kings, Jaguares (both away), Force, Brumbies (away), Blues, Hurricanes (away) and last week against the Sharks. Twelve of the past 16 matches when the Chiefs have hosted a fellow New Zealand team have been decided by fewer than 10 points; of those 16 matches Chiefs have won 12.

The Highlanders went on a run of five straight wins after their shock opening day defeat to the Blues, before losing back-to-back to the Reds and Sharks prior to rebounding against the Brumbies in Round 10. The Highlanders have also kept their opposition scoreless in the opening half of two of their last three matches away from home.

Prediction: So close to call. But the Chiefs back row going up against a Highlanders unit without Christie and Squire can dominate the breakdown, and therefore win. Chiefs by five.

Previous results:

2015: Highlanders won 24-14 in Dunedin
2015: Highlanders won 36-9 in Dunedin
2015: Highlanders won 20-17 in Hamilton
2014: Highlanders won 29-25 in Dunedin
2014: Chiefs won 21-19 in Hamilton
2013: Chiefs won 19-7 in Hamilton
2013: Chiefs won 41-27 in Dunedin
2012: Chiefs won 27-21 in Dunedin

The teams:

Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Mitchell Graham 
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Kane Hames, 19 Michael Allardice, 20 Maama Vaipulu, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Anton Lienert-Brown, 23 Sam Vaka

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 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Alex Ainley, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Dan Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Greg Plesants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 James Lentjes, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Teihorangi Walden

Date: Saturday, May 7
Venue: FMG Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Referees: Chris Pollock, Angus Mabey
TMO: Shane McDermott