Two of Super Rugby’s in-form teams go head-to-head on Friday when the Hurricanes host the Chiefs at Westpac Stadium in Wellington.
Since opening day defeats, both sides have bounced back in emphatic fashion, notching up five wins on the bounce. Both sides accounted for the Highlanders, but the Hurricanes have the feather in their cap of beating the Crusaders, whereas the Chiefs lost to the defending champions.
It is very tight at the top of the New Zealand conference as a result, with the Chiefs in third on 21 points, followed by the Hurricanes in second on 23 points and the Crusaders in first place on 24 points.
The Hurricanes’ home record is impressive to none, but if they have a bogey team when playing at the Westpac Stadium, it is the Chiefs.
The Hurricanes have won 19 of their last 21 matches at home, the only losses coming against the Chiefs in 2016 and 2017. Indeed, the ‘Canes have won seven of their last eight games at home against fellow New Zealand teams; however, their only loss in that time came against the Chiefs.
Last season, the Hurricanes smashed the Super Rugby record for most tries scored by a team in a season. But this season they are making waves for their defensive resilience.
The Hurricanes have proven to be the most difficult side to break down. They have conceded just six tries within their opposition’s opening three phases of possession this campaign, fewer than any other team.
But if there is a team to test their defensive resilience, it would be the Chiefs. Colin Cooper’s men have made more carries (126), metres (533), and clean breaks (18) per game than any other team this season.
The last time the teams met: It was a scintillating game, played at a frenetic pace, as both sides scored two converted tries apiece with a Damian McKenzie penalty proving to be the difference in the end as the Chiefs edged a 17-14 thriller.
Team news: The Hurricanes have made five changes to their starting line-up.
Beauden Barrett has recovered from a minor leg injury that forced his late withdrawal from the side that beat the Sharks in dramatic fashion in Napier last week and will start at fly-half.
In other changes, prop Toby Smith will make his first start since the opening Hurricanes match of the season against the Bulls having successfully completed his return to play protocols after suffering a head knock in Pretoria.
His return pushes the well performed Chris Eves to the bench where he will provide even more experience to the front-row cover along with Ben May.
In the second-row, Hurricanes’ head coach Chris Boyd has recalled Vaea Fifita after he started on the bench against the Sharks, with Michael Fatialofa moving to the reserves.
There is also a change at scrum-half with TJ Perenara sidelined with a knee injury he sustained in the first half at Napier, with Jamie Booth taking over and Richard Judd returning to the squad as cover in the reserves.
Matt Proctor has recovered from a sternum injury he suffered in the Hurricanes win over the Highlanders on March 24 and will start at centre as Vince Aso moves out to the wing in place of Julian Savea who has a week off.
In other changes to the bench, James O’Reilly replaces Asafo Aumua who has suffered a hand injury.
Friday’s match will be Hurricanes number eight Gareth Evans’ 50th Super Rugby match.
Meanwhile, Chiefs’ head coach Colin Cooper has made two alterations to his starting line-up to take on the Hurricanes in their derby in Wellington on Friday.
In the only tweak to the forwards who lined up in last weekend’s victory over the Blues in Hamilton, Taleni Seu is back at number eight where he replaces Pita Gus Sowakula.
The only other change is in the backline where co-captain Charlie Ngatai resumes action at full-back, with Solomon Alaimalo moving to the wing in place of the injured Toni Pulu.
Alex Nankivell is on the bench again this week after a return from having his appendix removed.
Cooper says his team is in a good space for this upcoming challenge.
“There is real clarity, consistency of game plan and of selection, and competition going on in the group,” he explained.
“When you combine all of that with winning, it gives you confidence.
“Looking at our first game, we didn’t respond well to the pressure that the Crusaders put on us, whereas last week in the Blues game, we didn’t panic, our leaders took control and we just dug out a win against a dangerous Blues team. That was a big change for us to see as coaches.”
Cooper is aware of what the Hurricanes can bring.
“Strategically, we understand that they are very expansive, with a good kicking and running game,” he said.
“We need to have the confidence to play our game when we have the ball. It’s important to do the work in the week and then when it comes to the game to be calm and controlled about it.”
2017: Chiefs won 17-14 in Wellington
2017: Chiefs won 26-18 in Hamilton
2016: Hurricanes won 25-09 in Wellington
2016: Chiefs won 28-27 in Wellington
2015: Hurricanes won 21-13 in New Plymouth
2015: Hurricanes won 22-18 in Wellington
2014: Chiefs won 24-16 in Hamilton
2014: Hurricanes won 45-08 in Wellington
2013: Chiefs won 34-22 in Hamilton
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Vince Aso, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Jamie Booth, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Sam Henwood, 6 Brad Shields (c), 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 James O’Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Ben May, 19 Michael Fatialofa, 20 Reed Prinsep, 21 Richard Judd, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Wes Goosen
Chiefs: 15 Charlie Ngatai (cc), 14 Sean Wainui, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Johnny Faauli, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Damian McKenzie/Marty McKenzie, 9 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 8 Taleni Seu, 7 Sam Cane (cc), 6 Lachlan Boshier, 5 Tyler Ardron/Michael Allardice, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Angus Ta’avao-Matau, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Aidan Ross
Replacements: 16 Liam Polwart, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Luke Jacobson, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Jonathan Taumateine, 22 Marty McKenzie/Tiaan Falcon, 23 Alex Nankivell
Date: Friday, April 13
Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Kick-off: 19:35 local (07:35 GMT)
Referee: Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Cam Stone (New Zealand)
Television match official: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)