The Chiefs will be keen to build on their impressive start to the season when they face off with the Bulls in Hamilton on Saturday.
The 2012 and 2013 champions are still unbeaten after four fixtures and head into this clash as overwhelming favourites as they will be refreshed after they had a bye last weekend.
There was plenty of hype about the Bulls’ chances at the start of the season but the men from Pretoria are yet to make an impact and have won just once – against the Sunwolves in Round 4 – this year.
The home side are undefeated in their last three matches against the Bulls – winning two and drawing one – and will be looking to win back-to-back games against them for the first time since Round 10, 2002.
The Chiefs have also lost just one of their 10 home fixtures against the Bulls and won each of their last two.
But despite those statistics, they are not underestimating their opponents and their assistant coach Andrew Strawbridge expects a tough assignment against the three-time champions.
“The Bulls haven’t had the start they would have liked but they’re really good in a couple of areas we have struggled,” he said.
“We see this game as a real challenge.”
With the odds heavily stacked against them, Bulls captain Adriaan Strauss acknowledged that his side are not playing to their potential and feels there is plenty of room for improvement.
“We are not doing justice to ourselves, we are not achieving the targets we set and we are disappointing our supporters,” he said.
“That said, this team is certainly good enough, but talk is cheap. We need to go out and show that on the field. We could not have picked a more fitting place or opponent to do that than against the Chiefs at home, but we have to show that belief and justify the hard work done.”
The last time these teams met: The Chiefs outscored their visitors five tries to three in a 34-20 win in Rotorua in 2015. The scores were locked at 15-all at half-time but the home side took control of proceedings in the second half. Augustine Pulu led the way for the Chiefs by scoring a brace of tries and their other five-pointers came via Tim Nanai-Williams, Liam Messam and Bryce Heem. For the Bulls, Bjorn Basson, Lappies Labuschagne and Jan Serfontein dotted down.
Team news: Veteran Chiefs loose forward Liam Messam will start in his 150th Super Rugby game this weekend. In the front-row, Siegfried Fisi’ihoi will start for the first time this season, packing down alongside Hika Elliot and Nepo Laulala. Dominic Bird and Brodie Retallick partner up in the second-row for the fifth consecutive game. Messam moves from number eight to start at blindside flanker, with co-captain Sam Cane and Michael Leitch completing the formidable loose forward trio in the seven and eight jerseys respectively. In the backs, Tawera Kerr-Barlow will don the nine jersey again this week, with Aaron Cruden returning to the starting XV at fly-half. Johnny Faauli is promoted from the bench to partner Anton Lienert-Brown in the midfield. James Lowe is back on the left wing, with Shaun Stevenson and Damian McKenzie completing the backline. 28-year-old Southland hooker Brayden Mitchell could make his Chiefs debut off the bench.
Arno Botha will make a first appearance of the season for the Bulls. Botha comes in for the injured Hanro Liebenberg at number eight. In other changes, Jesse Kriel moves from centre to full-back in place of Warrick Gelant, who will play off the bench. Burger Odendaal is back in the run-on team, and as in their win over the Sunwolves last month, will start with Jan Serfontein in the midfield, while at scrum-half, Rudy Paige and Piet van Zyl swap jerseys, with Paige starting this time. The same happens up front at lock with RG Snyman and Jason Jenkins alternating and at loosehead, where Lizo Gqoboka and Pierre Schoeman rotate again. Jacobie Adriaanse, who missed out last weekend, is back on the bench in place of injured John-Roy Jenkinson. Jaco Visagie and Edgar Marutlulle also swap places, with the latter on the bench.
Form: The Chiefs are one of the tournament’s in-form teams. Their campaign started with a 24-15 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin and in their next match they secured a 41-26 win over the Blues in Hamilton. In Round 3, they proved too strong for the Hurricanes in Hamilton, winning 26-18, and the next weekend they claimed a hard-fought 27-14 win over the Rebels in Melbourne in Round 4 before having a bye last weekend.
By contrast, the Bulls are battling to build momentum as they have won just one of their four matches this season. They lost 37-24 to the Stormers in their opener in Cape Town and then suffered a 34-28 defeat to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein the following weekend. They had a bye in Round 3 and their only win was registered in Round 4 when they beat the Sunwolves 34-21 in Pretoria. They kicked off their New Zealand tour with a 38-14 loss to the Blues in Auckland last week.
2015: Chiefs won 34-20 in Rotorua
2014: The teams drew 34-34 in Pretoria
2012: Chiefs won 28-22 in Hamilton
2011: Bulls won 43-27 in Pretoria
2010: Bulls won 33-19 in Hamilton
2009: Bulls won 61-17 in Pretoria (Final)
2009: Bulls won 33-27 in Pretoria
2008: Chiefs won 43-27 in Rotorua
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Shaun Stevenson, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Faauli, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (cc), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi
Replacements: 16 Brayden Mitchell, 17 Kane Hames, 18 Atu Moli, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Mitchell Karpik, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Stephen Donald, 23 Solomon Alaimalo
Bulls: 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Nick de Jager, 6 Ruan Steenkamp, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Replacements: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Jacobie Adriaanse, 19 Jason Jenkins, 20 Jannes Kirsten, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Warrick Gelant
Date: Saturday, April 1
Venue: FMG Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Paul Williams (New Zealand), Cam Stone (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)