Rugby is finally back with the Highlanders who will host the Chiefs at the Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin at 08h30 South African time today. It will be the first professional rugby competition in the world to have fans return en-masse in the Covid-19 era.
The Highlanders have named two debutants for Saturday’s clash, with Canterbury winger Sam Gilbert to start on the right flank and All Blacks Sevens playmaker Vilimoni Koroi named on the bench. Koroi wasn’t meant to feature for the Highlanders this season, but given the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, he’s rejoined the squad in Dunedin.
The Highlanders have put an end to their Josh Ioane experiment at 12 and have named him to start in his preferred pivot role. Aaron Mauger has put the onus on his forwards to step up in this competition and make amends to their slow start earlier this year. They’ve called upon 2.04m and 119kg lock Pari Pari Parkinson to join Josh Dickson in the second row. Skipper Ash Dixon said they’ve given Parkinson a bit more structure around his life and game and he’s now got more belief in himself. The Highlanders want to put to bed their slow start to the season and put on a show for their huge crowd in Dunedin as they put rugby back on the world ma, post Covid-19 lockdown.
HIGHLANDERS: 1. Ayden Johnstone 2. Ash Dixon © 3. Siate Tokolahi 4. Paripari Parkinson 5. Josh Dickson 6. Shannon Frizell 7. Dillon Hunt 8. Marino Mikaele Tu’u 9. Aaron Smith 10. Josh Ioane 11. Jona Nareki 12. Patelesio Tomkinson 13. Rob Thompson 14. Sam Gilbert* 15. Mitch Hunt. Replacements: 16. Liam Coltman 17. Daniel Lienert-Brown 18. Jeff Thwaites 19. Manaaki Selby-Rickit 20. Teariki Ben-Nicholas 21. Kayne Hammington 22. Teihorangi Walden 23. Vilimoni Koroi* (*Highlanders debut)
Chiefs head coach Warren Gatland has surprised many by naming Kaleb Trask to start at 10, with experienced pivot Aaron Cruden providing cover off the bench. Taranaki flanker Lachlan Boshier will play his 50th game for the Chiefs, while lock Tupou Vaa’i will start on debut. They welcome back All Blacks prop Nepo Laulala and flanker Luke Jacobson who will start on the blindside.
Chiefs coach Warren Gatland has backed up his decision to use former All Black Aaron Cruden off the bench in Dunedin. He said Cruden is 100% fit, but Trask has been training the whole time since they have been back, while Cruden was being managed. He only really took part in full training at the end of last week. It could be another masterstroke by Gatland, who used this same tactic earlier in the season when Cruden came off the pine against the Blues and helped them to come from behind and steal the victory.
CHIEFS: 1. Aidan Ross 2. Samisoni Taukei’aho 3. Nepo Laulala 4. Mitchell Brown 5. Tupou Vaa’i* 6. Luke Jacobson 7. Lachlan Boshier 8. Pita Gus Sowakula 9. Brad Weber 10. Kaleb Trask 11. Sean Wainui 12. Anton Lienert-Brown 13. Quinn Tupaea 14. Shaun Stevenson 15. Damian McKenzie. Replacements: 16. Bradley Slater 17. Ryan Coxon 18. Ross Geldenhuys 19. Naitoa Ah Kuoi 20. Dylan Nel 21. Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi 22. Aaron Cruden 23. Etene Nanai-Seturo. (*Chiefs debut).
- The Chiefs have lost only one of their last five Super Rugby games against the Highlanders (W3, D1); however, the last encounter between the teams in the competition ended in a 31-31 draw.
- The Highlanders' last home win against the Chiefs in Super Rugby came in Round 17, 2016; they have since picked up one draw and two defeats in such fixtures.
- The Highlanders have lost five of their last six completed Super Rugby games (W1), including their last three on the bounce.
- The Highlanders have lost their last two home games on the bounce in Super Rugby; the last time they lost more home games in succession in the competition was a six-game losing streak across the 2012 and 2013 campaigns.
- Each of the Chiefs' last four Super Rugby games have been won by the away team on the day, with the Hamilton-based squad picking up two wins and two defeats in that stretch.
- The Chiefs have won three of their last four Super Rugby games against fellow New Zealand opponents (L1), despite trailing at half-time on the day in each of those four games.
- The Highlanders have gained 500+ metres in three of their last five home games against fellow New Zealand opponents in Super Rugby, after having done so only once in 17 such fixtures prior.
- The Chiefs have conceded 10+ penalties in six of their last seven Super Rugby fixtures, as many times as they had done so in their 24 games prior.
- Shannon Frizell (Highlanders) has scored two tries in just 90 minutes of Super Rugby action against the Chiefs, as well as making three offloads in that time.
- Lachlan Boshier (Chiefs) has crossed for a try in five of his last seven Super Rugby appearances, including each of his last three on the bounce.