A capacity crowd is expected to pack into FMG Stadium in Waikato on Saturday as the Chiefs battle it out against the Highlanders in their fifth home game of the Super Rugby season.
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie has named a potent line-up to take on last year’s Super Rugby champions.
There are just two changes to the starting XV that secured a 24-22 win over the Sharks in New Plymouth last Friday, with dynamic winger James Lowe and influential centre Charlie Ngatai returning from injury to start against the Highlanders.
There are further changes in the reserves with Michael Allardice and Maama Vaipulu recovering from injury to re-join the 23.
Counties Manukau utility back Sam Vaka is poised to make his Super Rugby debut off the bench. The agile 23-year-old adds an exciting edge to the reserves having previously played for the All Blacks Sevens team.
Head coach Dave Rennie said: “We’ve been working hard this week to prepare for a massive challenge on Saturday night. The Highlanders are very similar to us, they’ve got a group of guys who work hard for each other.
“With game-breakers across the park, they are the type of team that will sting you if you kick poorly or turn the ball over. It’ll be a hell of a spectacle with two very positive kiwi teams on display.”
Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo returns from injury after being out with a broken leg since the Round One match against the Blues.
After a three-try performance in club rugby last weekend the explosive winger returns to reunite one of the most exciting back threes in the game.
His much anticipated return and a concussion injury to Rob Thompson forces head coach, Jamie Joseph, to reshuffle his backline.
Utility back, Matt Faddes, will get his first start at centre after previously playing on the wing and at full-back and Malakai Fekitoa moves to inside centre.
The timely return of Marty Banks from injury sees him take the place of an unlucky Hayden Parker who sustained a season ending knee injury at training last week.
In the forwards, co-captain Shane Christie will be sidelined for a few weeks with a hamstring injury. He is replaced at open side by Dan Pryor, Luke Whitelock returns at eight with James Lentjes making his first appearance for the season on the bench this week.
The versatile Gareth Evans rounds out the loose forwards in the reserves while Otago loose head prop Aki Seiuli gets an opportunity to make his Highlanders debut having come into the squad for the injured Brendon Edmonds.
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Hiroshi Yamashita, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Mitchell Graham
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Kane Hames, 19 Michael Allardice, 20 Maama Vaipulu, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Anton Lienert-Brown, 23 Sam Vaka
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Matt Faddes, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Alex Ainley, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Dan Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Greg Plesants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosiua Halanukonuka, 19 James Lentjes, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Teihorangi Walden
Date: Saturday, May 7
Venue: FMG Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Referees: Chris Pollock, Angus Mabey
TMO: Shane McDermott