Discipline against Lions crucial
Tonight's match could be the ultimate test for Dave Rennie's men. Evan Pegden reports.
The contrast could not be greater.
The Chiefs sit at the top of the Super Rugby table and the Lions second from bottom – only ahead of the Blues at this stage because they have had both their byes which each carry with them four competition points.
The Chiefs lost their first game of the season and have won all eight since, while the Johannesburg-based Lions, who last year won South Africa's provincial championship, the Currie Cup, won their first match and have lost every one since.
That potentially is a metaphorical "banana skin" for the front-running Chiefs, who will find it difficult to get themselves up for this match no matter what is said in pre-match team talks.
But it will be a good measure of just how high the Chiefs hold their desire to maintain standards and keep improving week to week. Dave Rennie and his coaching/management group have done a good job of ensuring that so far – but this in many ways is the ultimate test.
If the Chiefs win – and they should do so comfortably with a try-scoring bonus point as well if they play anywhere near the level they did last week – they will equal their best ever season of nine wins and they are only just past halfway mark in their season.
But such records are hardly motivators for the players. Rennie and co just have to keep them focused on improving their execution of the game plan and striving for excellence.
He has made some changes to the forward pack to try and get fresh legs and enthusiasm in there while resting a couple of players in particular who have carried a heavy load to date.
"The guys have worked hard to get themselves in the position that we're in so that it is key we keep the same sort of energy levels and expectations of each other," Rennie said.
In some ways it is a shame the Chiefs are leaving their Hamilton base to play this one in Pukekohe tonight after the big turnout for the Hurricanes game at Waikato Stadium last week. But this is a rare visit to what is now known as the ECOLight Stadium and on a fine night that should go a long way towards filling a good chunk of the 18,000 capacity.
"A lot of these boys have played a lot of footy there obviously over the years. It's a good ground, weather-wise it's supposed to be a good night so, hopefully, we'll get plenty of people along," he said.
The Lions, coached by one of Waikato rugby's favourite sons, John Mitchell, who himself coached the Chiefs back in 2001, have little to lose and have given three young players a go this week in the form of giant 2.01m, 115kg blindside flanker Grant Hattingh, halfback Ross Cronje and 2.04m lock Ruan Botha.
Derick Minnie moves back to his favoured openside flank berth, with the long-serving Cobus Grobbelaar dropping to the bench.
There is no Butch James in the side this week after he was suspended for four weeks for his illegal launch into a ruck against the Brumbies in Johannesburg last week.
Loosehead prop Caylib Oosthuizen needs to pass a late fitness test to take his place or he will be replaced by JC Janse van Rensburg, who along with bench prop CJ Van der Linde, is coming back from a long injury layoff. Also on the bench is former Waikato wing James Kamana.
The Chiefs have never lost to the Lions in New Zealand and only once been held by them to under 34 points here, but it should be noted that in their last four meetings there have never been more than seven points between them.
The difference this time should be the much improved Chiefs defence and the more physical, hard working forward play the home side are producing in 2012.
AT A GLANCE
Chiefs: Andrew Horrell, Lelia Masaga, Richard Kahui, Sonny Bill Williams, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Brendon Leonard, Kane Thompson, Sam Cane, Tanerau Latimer, Michael Fitzgerald, Craig Clarke (c), Ben Tameifuna, Hika Elliot, Toby Smith. Res: Mahonri Schwalger, Sona Taumalolo, Alex Bradley, Scott Waldrom, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Jackson Willison, Maritino Nemani.
Lions: Andries Coetzee, Deon van Rensburg, Jaco Taute, Alwyn Hollenbach, Lione Mapoe, Elton Jantjies, Ross Cronje, Josh Strauss (c), Grant Hattingh, Derick Minnie, Ruan Botha, Franco van der Merwe, Patrick Cilliers, Callie Visagie, Caylib Oosthuizen or JC Janse van Rensburg. Res: Martin Bezuidenhout, CJ Van der Linde, Cobus Grobbelaar, Jaco Kriel, Tian Meyer, James Kamana, Michael Killian. Referee: Ian Smith (Australia).
Kickoff: 7.35 tonight at ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe.