All eyes will be on Wellington on Saturday when the Hurricanes host the Chiefs in what is arguably the match of Round Nine.
Both sides have set the tournament alight with some scintillating performances, especially the Chiefs who are sitting pretty at the top of the Australasian Group.
The Chiefs currently have 29 points after losing just once in seven matches – a surprising 36-32 home defeat against the Lions in Round Two – and after having a bye last weekend they will try to continue where they left off in their previous match when they secured a deserved 29-23 victory over the Blues in Hamilton.
2015 runners-up the Hurricanes, by contrast, made a slow start to the competition but after early defeats – against the Brumbies and Highlanders – they returned to winning ways and are unbeaten in their last four fixtures.
Both sides boast formidable game-breakers and the duel between the two All Black fly-halves – the Hurricanes’ Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden of the Chiefs – should be one of the highlights of this encounter.
With New Zealand’s number 10 jersey at stake, and both players in sublime form, the performances of these two playmakers is bound to have a massive influence on the destiny of this match.
Dave Rennie’s charges are setting the benchmark for enterprising play and it’s no surprise that they are atop many of the tournament’s attacking statistics.
The men from Hamilton have scored the most tries (39), made the second most clean breaks (111), gained the most metres (3795) and also made the most offloads (99).
The Hurricanes are not far off the pace and are fourth highest for tries scored (28), in third place for clean breaks (87), in second spot for metres gained (3761) although they are ninth for offloads made (72).
The last time these teams met: Last year the Hurricanes claimed a 21-13 victory in Round 18 in New Plymouth and, in doing so, qualified for the semi-finals as the top ranked team at the end of the regular season. It wasn’t easy though as they held a slender 14-13 lead at the break. Bryce Heem scored an early try for the Chiefs and their other points came via a conversion and two penalties from Marty McKenzie. The Hurricanes’ points came via a penalty try, and further five-pointers from Conrad Smith and James Marshall which were all converted by Marshall.
Players to watch: Apart from Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden, there are other players who will also have big roles to play in this encounter. Hurricanes captain Dane Coles missed the opening rounds due to injury but hit the ground running upon his return against the Western Force and hasn’t taken his foot off the pedal in the Chiefs’ other matches. Coles’ deceptive speed and outstanding ball skills make him a threat on attack but he has also come to the fore with excellent leadership since becoming the ‘Canes’ captain.
Diminutive Chiefs full-back Damian McKenzie has been a revelation for the two-time champions and if his previous games are to be used as a yardstick, he’ll have a huge influence on this result. McKenzie has impressed with his accurate goal-kicking but it’s on attack where he has been a real revelation. When he joins the Chiefs’ back-line from the back, he should keep the home side’s defenders busy.
2015: Hurricanes won 21-13 in New Plymouth
2015: Hurricanes won 22-18 in Wellington
2014: Chiefs won 24-16 in Hamilton
2014: Hurricanes won 45-8 in Wellington
2013: Chiefs won 34-22 in Hamilton
2013: Chiefs won 117-12 in Wellington
2012: Hurricanes won 28-25 in Wellington
2012: Chiefs won 33-14 in Hamilton
Hurricanes: 15 Jason Woodward, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Vince Aso, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Blade Thomson, 3 Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles (c), 1 Red Goodes.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu’u, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Loni Uhila, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Willis Halaholo, 23 James Marshall.
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 Sam McNicol, 10 Aaron Cruden (cc), 9 Brad Weber, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Michael Allardice, 3 Atu Moli, 2 Rhys Marshall, 1 Mitchell Graham
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Maama Vaipulu, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 Glen Fisiiahi
Date: Saturday, April 23
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Craig Joubert
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant, Brendon Pickerill
TMO: Glenn Newman