Chiefs big challenge for Highlanders
The challenge is substantial.
Beat the table-topping Chiefs tonight and the Highlanders can still dream of featuring in the play-offs.
Lose and, at best, they will go into their final game against the Reds next week with only half a hope, although that hope may be only mathematical.
And standing in the way is a Chiefs team which has improved from the side beaten 23-19 by the Highlanders in round one back in February.
While the Highlanders will have one more All Black from the test series against Ireland in their starting lineup, the Chiefs have the Aaron Cruden-Sonny Bill Williams combination which won the game inside the first half hour in Hamilton last weekend.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph wasn't the only one surprised on Wednesday when the Chiefs team was announced with Cruden at first five-eighth. Cruden had been forced out of the test in the 27th minute with a recurrence of an Achilles tendon problem.
He hasn't trained with the Chiefs during the week, but was being assessed yesterday.
It's clear the sparky little Manawatu man lies at the heart of the Chiefs' attack and they will do whatever it takes to have him on deck against the Highlanders.
If he is a late withdrawal, he will be replaced by Andrew Horrell, although Horrell rolled an ankle in the gym earlier in the week and hasn't been training either.
Southland's Robbie Robinson, who has been named at fullback, has been filling in in the No10 jersey at training.
One thing the Chiefs don't lack for is depth. Four players in the reserves, including the outstanding openside flanker Sam Cane, have played for the All Blacks.
While it hasn't been an ideal build-up for the Chiefs, both teams are looking to get their season restarted after going on hold for the test series. In the case of the Highlanders, the break couldn't have come at a better time after eight straight games culminated in a hammering by the Crusaders.
"I think that the fact we are playing inside basically means that conditions will have no effect and it will be the best team that wins," Joseph said.
"If you are a rugby player, that's all you ask for – the best preparation, the best available players. We are both playing for something – they want a home play-off game and we want to make the play-offs. It's building up to being a bloody big match."
Mouth-watering match-ups abound tonight.
There are two scrappy halfbacks on show: Tawera Kerr-Barlow against the wunderkind Aaron Smith. And there are two heirs apparent to the All Black No6 jersey with Liam Messam up against Adam Thomson and SBW against anyone keen to take him on.
The Highlanders sit one point off the sixth-placed Hurricanes going into the weekend.
Two other teams – the Sharks and Reds – have a realistic chance of grabbing the final wildcard spot.
The Hurricanes, with the Crusaders and Chiefs bookending a bye, have arguably the toughest run home, but the Highlanders don't have it much easier.
The Sharks (Bulls and Cheetahs) look good and while the Reds have three games remaining, they all appear to be quite winnable.
RUN HOME: Hurricanes Competition points: 45 Games remaining: Crusaders (A), bye, Chiefs (H) Sharks Competition points: 45 Games remaining: Bye, Bulls (H), Cheetahs (H) Highlanders Competition points: 44 Games remaining: Chiefs (H), Reds (A), bye Reds Competition points: 44 Games remaining: Rebels (A), Lions (A), Waratahs (H)
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