Gareth Anscombe gets his chance to shine
The focus will be firmly on Gareth Anscombe in the No 10 jersey at Waikato Stadium tonight and whether he can bring the right attacking balance to the Chiefs.
Anscombe is filling a five-game void left by the broken thumb suffered by All Black Aaron Cruden, and just how he handles that role, which he last had in Super Rugby with the Blues in 2012, will be pivotal to whether the Chiefs stay in charge of the New Zealand Conference during that period. "Balance is the key word," Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie said.
Cruden undoubtedly is the man who has ignited much of the Chiefs' exciting attack since 2012 and, while his chip kicking out of defence at times can be frustrating, he will be a hard player to replace for his vision and star quality on attack that is matched by his courage and efficiency on defence.
"Conditions may dictate at the weekend, there's talk of a bit of rain, so we may kick a little bit more than we normally do, but Gareth's got a really good kicking game, is a pretty astute footy player and has got an excellent skillset so it's just about getting familiar again [with the position].
"He's trained quite a bit at 10, but there's nothing like playing. We're confident he can do the job for us and he's been playing at 15, so it's not like he hasn't been playing and he understands what we're trying to do."
Rennie said it should be remembered that Anscombe had also jumped into first receiver position a lot throughout those games he's played at fullback so he expected the transition to be relatively seamless.
Anscombe must be accurate with his tactical kicking because any loose kicks will feed a back three led by in-form ex-Wellington fullback Jason Woodward that is just as keen on counter-attack as the Chiefs.
The Chiefs' backline this week, if Anscombe can find that right balance, is potentially one of the most exciting attacking combinations they can put on the paddock, as long as they get the front-foot ball needed.
Again a star-studded bench will bring massive second-half impact.
The Rebels might have been regarded a couple of seasons back as easy-beats, especially in a home game, and haven't won outside Australia yet but the Force have upset the Chiefs in Perth this season and proved that the Australian teams really are a regular banana skin for them.
"[The Rebels] are a good side. They beat the Brumbies a couple of weeks ago and they really were under the pump last week against the Highlanders, but they just won't go away so they've got a lot of character," Rennie said.
"They've had a good season, they're pretty clear on what they're trying to do and there's not a lot of obvious chinks in their defensive line so we're certainly wary of them. We haven't really played well against the Aussie sides in the last couple of years so we've got a bit of a plan this week, but we're going to have to bring our A game because they're a pretty good side."
Both sides will be looking for better starts. The Chiefs have slipped into a slow-starting habit that has cost them in recent weeks and forced them to play high-risk catchup rugby.
No side has conceded more tries in the first 20 minutes of matches than the Rebels this season, having given up six in that first quarter, while the Chiefs have scored more tries (21) than any other side, except the Hurricanes who have the same number from one extra game, and 10 of them have come after the one-hour mark. "[To improve the slow starts] we're going to have to do the little things well, apply a bit of pressure and hopefully we can score early and get our game going," Rennie said.
The Chiefs claim the travel back from South Africa will not be a factor for them and if anything they will be hoping for a bit of an advantage from the two weeks training and playing at altitude in the republic.
"There's no excuse with the travel. The boys are in good condition, we've managed the travel back well and we've got a fair bit of training into them as well so they're in good spirits and we won't be using the travel as an excuse," Rennie said.
There was an improved lineout performance last week from the Chiefs, although their usually strong scrum slipped a little in the first spell. The Rebels will also target the Chiefs' lineout which is still the worst in the competition.
But if the home side can at least win their own ball and with both Tanerau Latimer and Sam Cane on the field from the opening whistle boosting their breakdown performance, their record of averaging the most running metres, line breaks and offloads should eventually prove too much for the Rebels' defence.