A rematch of last year’s quarter-final and the 2013 Super Rugby Final as well, the Chiefs face the Brumbies at Yarrow Stadium.
Stephen Larkham’s men were arguably the standout side over Round 1, despite many focusing their attention on how poor the Reds were instead of how the Brumbies ran red hot. With their nearly all-Wallaby backline and an inspired performance from David Pocock on his return, the Brumbies were more or less unstoppable. It helps to have two such dominant half-backs as Nic White and Matt Toomua, with White’s tactical kicking a really noticeable quality. His individual try, grubbering the ball through Will Genia’s legs, was simply too good.
Of course White and Toomua can’t start weaving magic out wide without the dominance of their forward pack. Sam Carter and Scott Fardy are now Wallaby favourites, with the former winning ten lineouts and stealing one against the hapless Reds.
Excelling at the set-piece has been a Brumbies strong point since Jake White first took over and against the Reds they lost just one out of 25. Another week however brings a bigger challenge for the Brumbies; namely stopping the Chiefs and Sonny Bill Williams from fracturing their defence. One they are ready for.
It speaks volumes about the Chiefs that even with many youngsters stepping up against the Blues, especially the outstanding Damian McKenzie, now the 2012 and 2013 champions can recall the quality of guys like Liam Messam, Aaron Cruden and Brodie Retallick.
Friday will also be the first chance to see new signing Hosea Gear in action after his stints overseas, with the veteran hungry to impress in a Rugby World Cup year. Dave Rennie’s squad is deep and rich, packed with talent, which is why there are such high expectations for the Chiefs in this year’s competition. Losing Friday’s clash wouldn’t be a disaster in the wider context of the season, but it will provide a useful yardstick for Rennie and his coaching staff to evaluate where they must improve, if a third title in four seasons is to come back to Waikato.
You can guarantee that win or lose, they will play with plenty of style.
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie: “There is a huge amount of competition for places and we are excited to have our returning All Blacks back in the mix. Between our team and the Brumbies there are plenty of world class players on display and with the styles both teams like to play it will be a real positive game.”
Brumbies head coach Stephen Larkham: “It’s a pleasure to welcome Ita Vaea back to the starting side for the first time in two years. In my time in rugby this has been one of the great fight-back stories, right up there with Julian Huxley, and I’m pleased for Ita that he’s been able to make a full return to the starting side.
There’s no doubt we’ll miss David Pocock, but as the Brumbies Player’s Player in 2014 Jarrad Butler was outstanding and I’m excited to see him back in the number seven jersey.
The teams: Chiefs: 15 James Lowe, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Brad Weber, 8 Maama Vaipulu, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam (captain), 5 Michael Fitzgerald, 4 Matt Symons, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Jamie Mackintosh. Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Ben Tameifuna, 19 Brodie Retallick, 20 Tevita Koloamatangi, 21 Augustine Pulu, 22 Damian McKenzie, 23 Seta Tamanivalu Brumbies: 15 Robbie Coleman, 14 Joe Tomane, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Henry Speight, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White (c), 8 Ita Vaea, 7 Jarrad Butler, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Rory Arnold, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Josh Mann-Rea, 1 Scott Sio Replacements: 16 Stephen Moore 17 JP Smith 18 Ruan Smith 19 Jordan Smiler 20 Sean Doyle 21 Michael Dowsett 22 James Dargaville 23 Lausii Taliauli Date: Friday, February 20 Venue: Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT) Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia) Assistant Referees: Shane McDermott (New Zealand), Paul Williams (New Zealand) TMO: Glen Newman (New Zealand