There should be plenty of fireworks when the Chiefs and the Blues face off in their New Zealand North Island derby in Hamilton on Friday.
After impressive performances in their opening fixtures last week, both these teams will be brimming with confidence although the Chiefs will have an extra spring in their step as they have won the last 10 matches between these two sides.
The 2012 and 2013 champions have also won five of their last seven regular season games against fellow New Zealand opposition and with this fixture being played in Hamilton, they will fancy their chances of continuing with their fine run against their visitors.
The Blues, however, will take comfort in the fact that seven of those 10 defeats to the Chiefs were decided by a margin of fewer than 10 points.
The Chiefs return for a home fixture in Super Rugby for the first time since Round 15 in 2016 and they have won five of their last six games on home turf.
For Chiefs playmaker Aaron Cruden this is a momentous match and he will be hoping to celebrate his 100th Super Rugby match in style with a victory although it will not be a walk in a park as the Blues have improved under the guidance of their head coach Tana Umaga.
When the former All Black took charge of the team last year morale was low after they finished in 14th place from the 15-team competition.
And although they finished at the bottom of the New Zealand Conference last season, they made tremendous strides with Umaga at the the helm by finishing in 11th position on the overall table from 18 participating sides.
The men from Auckland were in superb form last week in a 56-18 demolition of the Rebels in Melbourne and another away win this weekend will set them up nicely for the rest of the campaign.
The Blues have several attacking threats across the park especially in the back-line where Rieko Ioane and Ihaia West have come on in leaps and bounds and both showed against the Rebels that they are matchwinners who will be important to the Blues’ cause throughout 2017.
The last time these teams met: Last year, the Chiefs came from behind to claim a 29-23 bonus point victory in a Round 7 clash in Hamilton. They had to dig deep and after trailing by 10 points early in the second half, they launched a stunning fightback to outscore the Blues by five tries to two. Mitch Graham, Shaun Stevenson, Aaron Cruden, Seta Tamanivalu and Brodie Retallick scored the Chiefs’ tries and Melani Nanai and Rieko Ioane crossed the whitewash for the Blues.
Players to watch: Japan international Michael Leitch is set to make his first appearance of the 2017 campaign when he lines up at number eight for the Chiefs. The Brave Blossoms stalwart will be keen to impress after spending a large part of the 2016 season on the sidelines with a broken thumb. Leitch will be expected to get his team over the gainline with some strong carries and his back row combination with flankers Liam Messam and Lachlan Boshier will be crucial if the Chiefs want to take the spoils.
After delivering the standout performance during the tournament’s opening round, all eyes will be on All Black utility back Rieko Ioane. The 19-year-old caught the eye with his hat-trick against the Rebels which will make him a marked man this weekend. Ioane has the uncanny knack of unlocking the tightest defences and will be keen to continue where he left off in Melbourne last weekend.
Team news: Chiefs boss Dave Rennie has made three changes to his starting XV. In the forwards, the experienced tight five remains the same for the second consecutive week. A reshuffle in the loose forwards sees Liam Messam move to blindside flanker from number eight, Lachlan Boshier is promoted from the bench to start at seven and Michael Leitch makes his first appearance for 2017 at number eight. There is just one change in the backs, with Tim Nanai-Williams moving from the bench to start on the right wing. This fixture is a momentous one for co-captain Aaron Cruden, with the outstanding fly-half to play in his 100th Super Rugby game. Cruden’s career started at the Hurricanes where he played in 25 Super Rugby matches before moving to the Chiefs in 2012 whom he has represented in 74 games.
Meanwhile, the Blues have an unchanged run-on side. Jimmy Tupou will again lead the team from the second ro. There is a mix of Super experience in prop Pauliasi Manu, up against his former team, Tupou and All Black Steve Luatua who have 156 Super caps between them. And some enterprising developing stars led by loose forwards Blake Gibson and Akira Ioane as well as lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti. The backline, with an average age of just 24 years, get a further chance with centre Rieko Ioane and fly-half Ihaia West leading the charge and keen to build on last week’s impressive efforts against the Rebels. The bench is notable with Patrick Tuipulotu and Jerome Kaino returning for the first time this season to join fellow All Blacks Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Charlie Faumuina, George Moala and Rene Ranger along with Maori All Black Billy Guyton and NZ U20 rep Hame Faiva.
Form: The Chiefs were under the cosh for large periods in their opener against the Highlanders in Dunedin but although their hosts dominated the territorial and possession stakes, Dave Rennie’s side held on for the win. After leading 14-9 at half-time, the Chiefs kicked on in the second half and eventually scored three tries to the Highlanders’ zero and held on for a memorable 24-15 win.
The Blues made a terrific start to their Super Rugby campaign when they claimed an emphatic 56-18 victory over the Rebels in Melbourne. The men from Auckland turned on the style in the latter part of that clash and after leading 25-15 at half-time, they won the second half 31-3 and outscored their hosts by seven tries to three.
2016: Chiefs won 29-23 in Hamilton
2015: Chiefs won 23-16 in Hamilton
2015: Chiefs won 23-18 in Albany
2014: Chiefs won 11-8 in Auckland
2014: Chiefs won 32-20 in New Plymouth
2013: Chiefs won 26-16 in Auckland
2013: Chiefs won 23-16 in Mount Maunganui
2012: Chiefs won 41-34 in Auckland
2012: Chiefs won 29-14 in Hamilton
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Tim Nanai-Williams, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Faauli, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Lachlan Boshier, 6 Liam Messam, 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 Taleni Seu, 20 Tom Sanders, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Toni Pulu, 23 Shaun Stevenson
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 4 Jimmy Tupou (c), 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 Matt Moulds, 1 Pauliasi Manu
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Jerome Kaino, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 George Moala, 23 Rene Ranger
Date: Friday, March 3
Venue: FMG Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Shuhei Kubo (Japan)
Assistant Referees: AJ Jacobs (South Africa), Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)