Rennie: We’re already at the knockout stage
Both teams feel they have to win to stay in the playoff race, conditions will be neutral under cover – the Chiefs v Highlanders game in Dunedin tonight promises to be a cracker.
With three weeks of the regular season left in Super Rugby, the Chiefs find themselves having slipped from top of the New Zealand conference to eighth overall, and outside the playoff positions.
The Highlanders are three points ahead of the Chiefs in fifth place overall and holding the second of three wildcard positions.
In the vital race for conference honours, the Chiefs are fourth and six points behind the leading Crusaders but, at this point for the back-to-back Super Rugby champions, it is just about making the top six for the playoffs.
‘‘We’re in a must-win situation,’’ said Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie. ‘‘It’s pretty much knockout footy for us already because, if you lose this game, you need a miracle so it’s a big weekend and everyone’s well aware of that.’’
The Chiefs have worked hard in the break to introduce some variation to their game.
‘‘We haven’t changed too much but hopefully enough to make the opposition think a little bit,’’ Rennie said.
The Highlanders have won seven games already this season, which is more than they managed all season in 2013, but like the Chiefs they lost their last two before the international window, going down to both the Crusaders at home and Reds away by narrow margins.
‘‘They’re pretty innovative, they’ve got a lot of pretty slick set-pieces that challenge a lot of teams, they’re lethal off turnover pill and counter-attack so we need to be pretty strong in those areas.
‘‘In regard to our kick-chase, we need to be accurate and keep pill and ultimately we need to be aware of those strengths that they’ve got because they do play some pretty attractive footy,’’ Rennie said.
But the Chiefs do see opportunities against the Highlanders, a team the Chiefs pipped 21-19 in Hamilton back on March 1.
‘‘We need to be a little bit slicker than we have been in the last couple of weeks [before the break] in regard to finishing off opportunities,’’ Rennie said, reiterating earlier comments.
But expect some subtle variations in the way the Chiefs forwards attack as well as how they combine that with a slick backline.
The venue certainly suits the Chiefs in terms of the attacking style of rugby they play but the same could be said for the Highlanders.
‘‘It’s quite exciting to know that it could be pouring down outside but you’re still going to get the game both sides want to play,’’ Rennie said.
The home side will be sparked by some of the individual stars of the All Blacks’ recent 3-0 whitewash against England – Aaron Smith, Malakai Fekitoa and Ben Smith.
Former Chiefs wing Patrick Osborne is another who was called in to train with the All Blacks and has been in top form this season for the Highlanders.
There is an interesting look to the home side’s forward pack, with Waikato hooker Brayden Mitchell and lock Tom Franklin, a 23-year-old old boy of St Paul’s Collegiate, both chosen on the back of strong form for the Highlanders in a practice match against New Zealand Barbarians in Invercargill.
The Chiefs are hoping they have the right balance in their backline this time, with Robbie Fruean bringing much-needed size at centre, while they will look for their big, abrasive forward pack to take the game to the Highlanders.
Then look for big impact off the bench where the likes of Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Tim Nanai-Williams will be itching to make their mark.
Highlanders: Ben Smith (c), Richard Buckman, Malakai Fekitoa, Shaun Treeby, Patrick Osborne, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Nasi Manu (c), Shane Christie, Elliot Dixon, Joe Wheeler, Tom Franklin, Ma’afu Fia, Brayden Mitchell, Kane Hames. Reserves: Ged Robinson, Matias Diaz, Chris King, Josh Bekhuis, Lee Allan, Fumiaki Tanaka, Hayden Parker, Phil Burleigh.
Chiefs: Gareth Anscombe, Dwayne Sweeney, Robbie Fruean, Bundee Aki, Tom Marshall, Aaron Cruden (c), Augustine Pulu, Liam Squire, Tanerau Latimer, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Mike Fitzgerald, Ben Tameifuna, Mahonri Schwalger, Pauliasi Manu. Reserves: Nathan Harris, Jamie Mackintosh, Josh Hohneck, Matt Symons, Tevita Koloamatangi, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Tim Nanai-Williams, James Lowe.
Referee: Garratt Williamson (NZ).
Kickoff: 7.35 tonight, Dunedin Stadium.