Preview: Highlanders v Chiefs

The battle for top spot in New Zealand kicks-off on Saturday in Dunedin when the Highlanders play host to the Chiefs in a mouth-watering showdown.

With the Crusaders tackling the Hurricanes straight after this match, it promises to be a 160 minute roller-coaster for fans in the country.

The Chiefs and Crusaders sit in the box seat at the moment and even if the Highlanders can win on home soil, they would still need the 'Canes to do them a favour in Christchurch. Factor in all of their recent travelling to South Africa and Argentina and it would be some achievement.

Yes the Highlanders have been on an arduous road trip this past fortnight but head coach Jamie Joseph has managed his squad well and he will hope they give one big final push to avoid flying back to the Republic. At this stage a short visit over to Australia looks much more appealing.

Whatever the result it promises to be an epic meeting between two excellent outfits, with the Chiefs looking for a win that in all likelihood would see them finish atop the overall standings. That is due to the Lions opting to rest their whole first XV ahead of the upcoming quarter-finals.

There are fascinating match-ups all over the field and with the full house sign put up on Thursday at Forsyth Barr Stadium, the atmosphere will be electric in south New Zealand as the Highlanders look to continue their fine run of form against the Chiefs, winning the last five games.

Home comforts after their long period on the road is also a boost for Joseph's men as the Highlanders return to Dunedin for the first time in over two months; they have won 18 of their last 23 home matches, with their five losses in that run all having come by seven points or fewer.

Aaron and Ben Smith will be key players but they will miss the leadership of Shane Christie. Elsewhere head coach Joseph has surprisingly decided to leave out Rob Thompson at inside centre and instead plumps for Matt Faddes and Malakai Fekitoa, the latter moving in to 12.

There's a surprise in the Chiefs XV too as Brad Weber, who along with Damian McKenzie and James Lowe has been a backline star, is again overlooked as Tawera Kerr-Barlow gets the nod at scrum-half. The return of Liam Messam though could prove key in terms of experience.

What a prospect this is then; Smith versus McKenzie, Lowe up against Waisake Naholo, Lima Sopoaga facing Aaron Cruden, the list goes on in what should be a game full of quality and high on tension. Bring it on.

The last time the teams met: It was an impressive performance from the Highlanders as they won 26-13 at the Chiefs in Round 11. Prop Daniel Lienert-Brown scored their first try on 30 minutes before wing Waisake Naholo crossed for a brace to give them a handy cushion. Aaron Cruden and Sam Vaka went over in the 52nd and 80th minute respectively for the Chiefs but by then the result had already been settled in Hamilton.

Players to watch: Mentioned already but it's difficult to understate just how key Aaron and Ben Smith are to this Highlanders line-up. The All Black pair make this side tick as in attack the scrum-half manoeuvres his pack superbly before unleashing the backs, while in defence rival teams know that any poor kicks will be punished by full-back Ben. Also keep an eye on hooker Ash Dixon who is growing in confidence.

On the Chiefs side the return of Liam Messam is an interesting one. While he will be Sevens fit, getting back into the Fifteens swing may take a bit of time. That is time the Chiefs may not be afforded by the Highlanders so Messam, alongside Sam Cane and impressive flank Tom Sanders, needs to hit the ground running. Expect fellow forward Brodie Retallick to be everywhere in Dunedin on Saturday. He could be key.

Team news: Highlanders head coach Jamie Joseph has made three changes to his starting XV. In the backs there's one tweak, with Matt Faddes coming in at outside centre and Malakai Fekitoa shifting in a position to wear the number 12 jersey in place of Rob Thompson. The other changes come in the pack where Alex Ainley and Daniel Lienert-Brown replace Joe Wheeler and Josh Hohneck at lock and loosehead prop.

Chiefs boss Dave Rennie has made two changes. Both come in the pack where All Blacks Liam Messam and Brodie Retallick make a welcome return to the men from Hamilton's run-on side. Messam comes in at number eight where he takes over from co-captain Sam Cane, who moves to openside where he replaces Lachlan Boshier, while Retallick takes over from Taleni Seu. Tawera Kerr-Barlow remains at nine.

Form: After a loss at the Hurricanes, the Highlanders have won their last two fixtures with bonus points on a tough tour travel wise. Taking on the Kings and Jaguares on the road meant plenty of air miles for the champions but they came through those games very well, rotating intelligently. This is their first home game since Round 12 when they defeated the Crusaders and they are welcomed back by a full house.

The Chiefs have also won their last two since losing in Round 14 at the Waratahs. They impressed against the Crusaders in Fiji when they prevailed 23-13 and then last week the Reds were given a hiding in Brisbane, as the Chiefs ran out 50-5 winners in an eight-try success.

Prediction: Fatigue is surely going to set in due to their recent travels and that is why we see the Highlanders losing this. Chiefs by 8.

Previous results:

2016: Highlanders won 26-13 in Hamilton
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

The teams:

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
Replacements: 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 (cc), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Atu Moli, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 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

Date: Saturday, July 16
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Wratt (New Zealand)