Back home after a testing tour in South Africa and Australia which produced two wins from three matches, the Chiefs will look for more fluidity when they take on the Sunwolves this Saturday.
Filo Tiatia’s side have had their moments throughout this tour to New Zealand but the writing has always been on the wall for the Sunwolves. Coming away with even a bonus point felt like a stretch and that has been the case in sizeable defeats to the Crusaders and Highlanders.
Will the Chiefs fixture be any different? Dave Rennie certainly hasn’t been afraid to ring the changes for Saturday’s game with an eye to resting some of his top players following that overseas trip. Even then, the Chiefs seem to have enough depth to have things covered.
Nine new faces come into the side of which the most interesting is arguably scrum-half Jonathan Taumateine, who is set to make his first start for the Chiefs with Tawera Kerr-Barlow an Finlay Christie absent.
Even with all those alterations the Chiefs’ core remains intact – Sam Cane, Aaron Cruden, Damian McKenzie – allowing Rennie to rest Brodie Retallick which is bound to keep Steve Hansen happy as the Lions tour edges onto the horizon.
Like the Chiefs there has been no holding back when it comes to team changes for the Sunwolves, but here inconsistency in selection is beginning to feel like an issue as the Sunwolves continue to chop and change at fly-half in particular looking for the right option.
Hayden Cripps gets the nod this week but continuing to mix up the half-back combination each week is only going to hinder the Sunwolves’ development. Out of Cripps and Tamura, the latter Japanese international has looked the more assured this far in 2017. Yet he will be starting from the bench on Saturday.
Unlikely to pick up that second Super Rugby win on this tour of New Zealand, the Sunwolves continue to thrive off that victory over the Bulls when their execution was above average for the year and when, more importantly, they showed plenty of heart.
Even if Saturday’s game ends as a third straight defeat as expected, Tiatia and the squad have to keep their heads up going into the end of the year. Cynics might not be interested in acknowledging any progress, but it has certainly been made.
Jamie-Jerry Taulagi might only be starting on the bench, but has provided 17 offloads for the Sunwolves this campaign, the equal most of any player in the competition alongside the Stormers’ SP Marais. That kind of impact has been in short supply for the side all year long, and if the Chiefs continue to suffer fatigue from their tour, then Taulagi will pounce.
Team news: There are two positional switches and nine personnel changes to the Chiefs starting fifteen that defeated the Western Force 16-7 last Saturday. In the forwards, there’s a new look front row with Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala returning to the matchday 23 to start in jerseys one and three respectively. Hika Elliot is promoted from the bench to start at hooker. Dominic Bird retains his place at lock for the second consecutive week, partnering with Taleni Seu who moves from the reserves to start in jersey five. Tom Sanders rejoins the matchday squad this week to start at blindside flanker. He’s joined in the loose forwards by Mitchell Karpik who gets his second start of the season at openside flanker and co-captain Sam Cane who switches to number eight this week. The changes continue in the backs with Jonathan Taumateine named to make his first start for the Chiefs at scrum-half. He’ll have plenty of support from experienced co-captain Aaron Cruden who starts at fly-half for the fifth game in a row. The two positional changes sees Sam McNicol switch from outside centre to the left wing, with Anton Lienert-Brown slotting into the vacated 13 jersey from inside centre. Stephen Donald is promoted from the bench to start in jersey 12. Solomon Alaimalo earns his second start of the season to play on the right wing and Damian McKenzie retains his spot as starting full-back.
Three of the Sunwolves changes come in the backs, starting on the wing where Teruya Goto comes into the side, with Derek Carpenter also starting to partner Will Tupou in midfield. Hayden Cripps gets the nod at fly-half meanwhile ahead of Yu Tamura, who drops to the bench. Shunsuki Nunomaki starts at openside flanker, with Willie Britz and Ed Quirk remaining in the back row, while at lock Shinya Makabe takes over from Uwe Helu. Finally in the front row Takeshi Kizu at hooker and Heiichiro Ito at tighthead prop both come into the starting XV, as the Sunwolves chase a second win of the season.
Form: The Chiefs have won their last five games on home soil. The last time they went on a longer home winning streak was a run of nine from 2013 to 2014. In fact, the Chiefs have won 20 of their last 23 games at home against teams from outside New Zealand, those wins coming by an average margin of 15 points. The Sunwolves are yet to win away from home, with their 11 losses so far coming by an average margin of 30 points.
In fact, the Japanese side have conceded 90 points already in their tour of New Zealand so far from just two games. The Chiefs have stolen 17 lineouts this campaign, the equal most of any team in the competition (level with the Kings). The Sunwolves have lost just 2.9 rucks per game this season, the fewest of any team, and boast a league-high 96 percent ruck success rate.
The Chiefs have conceded just one try from possession beginning in their opposition’s half this season, the fewest of any team in the competition and 11 fewer than the Sunwolves.
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Solomon Alaimalo, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Stephen Donald, 11 Sam McNicol, 10 Aaron Cruden (cc), 9 Jonathan Taumateine, 8 Sam Cane (cc), 7 Mitchell Karpik, 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Taleni Seu, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Aidan Ross, 18 Sosefo Kautai, 19 Mitchell Brown, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Alex Nankivell, 22 Shaun Stevenson, 23 James Lowe
Sunwolves: 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Teruya Goto, 13 William Tupou, 12 Derek Carpenter, 11 Yasutaka Sasakura, 10 Hayden Cripps, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Willie Britz, 7 Shunsuki Nunomaki, 6 Edward Quirk (c), 5 Sam Wykes, 4 Shinya Makabe, 3 Heiichiro Ito, 2 Takeshi Kizu, 1 Keita Inagaki
Replacements: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Koki Yamamoto, 18 Takuma Asahara, 19 Uwe Helu, 20 Rahboni Warren Vosayaco, 21 Yuki Yatomi, 22 Yu Tamura, 23 Jamie-Jerry Taulagi
Date: Saturday, April 29
Venue: FMG Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Will Houston (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Richard Kelly (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)