The Highlanders will be looking for a seventh successive win over the Chiefs when the two teams collide at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Friday.
Both these sides suffered semi-final heartbreak in 2016, losing to the Lions and Hurricanes respectively, so will be eager to bounce back.
They should be in the mix again in 2017 as both possess quality aplenty and play a brand of rugby that always keeps supporters entertained – last year the Highlanders scored 50 tries and Chiefs 68 in the regular-season’s 15 games – making for a mouth-watering clash in Dunedin.
It’s a farewell season for Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie, along with his assistant Kieran Keane and fly-half Aaron Cruden, which will mean there is that bit more riding on things from the outset. Cruden will be desperate to say goodbye with the Super Rugby trophy in his hands.
Not having Brad Weber or Augustine Pulu as Cruden’s half-back partner is a major blow to their hopes and places extra importance on Tawera Kerr-Barlow remaining injury free all season. The Chiefs will also hope for solid years from the returning tighthead prop Nepo Laulala and centre Charlie Ngatai when he is back from concussion – both are vital to their hopes of wrestling the title from the Hurricanes’ clutches.
Winning in Dunedin is something the Chiefs have not done since 2013 when Tim Nanai-Williams was the star of the show in a wonderful match. The Highlanders will be desperate to keep their hoodoo over their New Zealand rivals going and look every bit like challengers once again.
The quality at their disposal from their All Black backs and ever under-rated pack make them a threat. And with Ben Smith committing his future to them in the off-season, they also have that boost under the leadership of new head coach Tony Brown. He will hope for a winning start to his tenure and on past form it would be difficult to go against the Highlanders, particularly with the Chiefs missing Sam Cane.
The Highlanders have won 11 of their last 12 games at home, including each of their last three, and have not lost a home fixture by more than the value of a converted try since a 28-point defeat to the Crusaders in Round 18, 2013, making the Chiefs’ task ever more daunting.
The last time these teams met: The Round 17 fixture had plenty riding on it as the regular-season drew to a close. The Highlanders managed to come out on top, winning 25-15 thanks to tries from Waisake Naholo, Dan Pryor and Lima Sopoaga, with Toni Pulu and Lachlan Boshier the Chiefs’ scorers. That meant the Highlanders didn’t have to make the long trip to South Africa and instead faced the Brumbies in Canberra.
Players to watch: On debut for his new side, Tevita Li will hope his move to the Highlanders kick starts his career. He never really got going at the Blues after showing so much promise for New Zealand U20 for whom he scored 13 tries in 10 games. But now the 21-year-old is fortunate to be given a chance in Dunedin and if he doesn’t flourish in this backline then he never will. A big chance to score for fun.
For the Chiefs they will hope the absence of Sam Cane doesn’t impact on their performance and in Mitchell Karpik they have an all-action openside who should give a good account of himself. Easily spotted with his long white hair, Karpik will relish this chance, as will new centre Johnny Faauli as he pairs up with Anton Lienert-Brown in what will be a fascinating battle with Rob Thompson and Malakai Fekitoa.
Teams news: Highlanders head coach Tony Brown has named a squad that contains five debutants. Tevita Li and Siate Tokolahi make the side while Adrian Smith, Guy Millar and Kayne Hammington could earn debuts from the bench. Brown will start all of his All Blacks apart from back-row Elliot Dixon, who will make his impact off the bench, with Matt Faddes also an excellent option at centre or in the back three.
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie has named a vastly experienced line-up as the XV features 10 players with All Black experience. Flank Mitch Karpik is one of four exciting young players in line to make their Super Rugby bow for the Chiefs this week. He is joined in the starting line-up by 21-year-old Taranaki centre Johnny Faauli, who will start his first game, while 19-year-old Waikato hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho and Counties Manukau scrum-half Jonathan Taumateine, 20, could earn their first caps off the bench. All Black tighthead prop Nepo Laulala will also don the jersey for the first time after returning from a knee injury sustained in January 2016, with Kane Hames the other prop.
Form: The Highlanders enter the season on the back of a high-scoring 50-47 victory over the Waratahs. They led 33-18 at half-time before making wholesale changes to the first-team, who looked in impressive form with Ben Smith grabbing a couple of tries in those 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs lost their final pre-season fixture 26-14 to the Blues. However, they were impressive winners of the Brisbane 10s.
2016: Highlanders won 25-15 in Dunedin
2016: Highlanders won 26-13 in Hamilton
2015: Highlanders won 24-14 in Dunedin
2015: Highlanders won 36-9 in Dunedin
2015: Highlanders won 20-17 in Hamilton
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Adrian Smith, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Guy Millar, 19 Jackson Hemopo, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Faauli, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Messam, 7 Mitchell Karpik, 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Mitchell Brown, 20 Lachlan Boshier, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Tim Nanai-Williams, 23 Shaun Stevenson
Date: Friday, February 24
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off: 19:35 local (08:35 GMT)
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
TMO: Aaron Paterson (New Zealand)