Big game, monster occasion and Chiefs coach Ian Foster has played ball by bringing back his big guns for Saturday night’s top-of-the-table and soon-to-sellout clash against the Hurricanes at Waikato Stadium.
Rugby heaven NZ reports that it’s the most potent lineup the Chiefs could have named at this stage of the season, with only halfback Brendon Leonard – still a week away with his sternum injury – a notable absentee.
All told there are five personnel changes and one more positional one from the lineup that got up to knock over the Stormers in Cape Town last weekend.
As signposted, Foster has ushered fit-again super wingers Sitiveni Sivivatu and Lelia Masaga straight back into action after both stayed behind from the trip to South Africa to get themselves back into top condition.
That’s seen Sosene Anesi drop to the reserves, while Dwayne Sweeney was not considered this week because of an ankle injury.
And up front Tanerau Latimer is back in the No 7 jersey, with ex-Hurricane Serge Lilo dropping back to the bench from where he’ll look to make the impact later in the match.
The man they call Giant, towering lock Kevin O’Neill, is also back to partner Craig Clarke in the much-improved Chiefs tight five, with Toby Lynn assuming the backup role.
And in the front row Sona Taumalolo gets the nod this week ahead of James McGougan, with the versatile Ben May switching to the tighthead side. The Chiefs have been highly impressed with the Hurricanes scrum over the latter stages of the season and their selection here, as well as the retention at hooker of strongman Aled de Malmanche ahead of Hika Elliot, indicates this is their most powerful set piece.
The return of Sivivatu and Masaga sees the Chiefs backline back to full firepower for the first time since they ran amok against the Blues, Reds and Lions in successive weeks. With Leonard due back next week, there’s an ominous look about this unit.
The one factor that might work against the Chiefs this week is the travel one. All, except Masaga and Sivivatu, made the big trip back from the republic where they achieved their best ever return of 10 points via two victories from three matches. That must have taken a toll of some sort.
“The hardest part is just getting sleep patterns right,” said Foster. “You’ve got to plan your week, not overload them too much. But you’ve also got to get the balance and get them ready for the intensity that Saturday’s going to bring. It’s a tricky thing to get right.”
He’s hoping the freshness and enthusiasm of his two well-rested wingers might be crucial, and just a little infectious. “They’ll bring a lot of energy, and we may need that,” he said.
Foster admitted the selection was tight at hooker where de Malmanche and Elliot offer contrasting styles.
“Hika has become such a valuable person coming off the bench in the last 30,” added Foster. “Yet he’s shown he’s good enough to start. It’s horses for courses really.”
With the two teams boasting massive firepower in their backlines, dynamic loose trios and plenty of form – the Canes have won their last four and the Chiefs seven of their last eight – many are expecting a scoring extravaganza at Waikato Stadium which as of Thursday afternoon had just 400 tickets left to reach sellout status.
And Foster was hopeful the 25,000 mostly Mooloo faithful that will squeeze into this splendid rugby stadium would be obliged with something special, despite the huge stakes which hang over this encounter.
“Tactics will be very important,” said Foster. “Coops (Hurricanes coach Colin Cooper) and I know each other pretty well. He probably understands our game better than most coaches. The same way I’ve got a pretty good feel about theirs.
“We’re similar in some ways, but there are some distinct differences. From what we’ve seen from them recently, their scrum is coming right and their breakdown work is one of their trademarks really. We know where the battle is going to be and it’s a matter of gearing up for what will be a pretty intense one.”
With a suspect weather forecast, Foster conceded the elements could determine playing style somewhat, but he pledges “we still want to play”.
And as far as the occasion goes, the long-time Chiefs mentor in his sixth year with the franchise says it simply doesn’t get any better than this.
“I love this week,” he said. “This is where we’ve been trying to get to really. We went to South Africa wanting to come back and be in contention, and we are.
“The nice thing about coming home for this one is we’re not searching for reasons to motivate a tiring team. The team’s excited, we’ve been smart in managing the workload the last three or four weeks, and I’m expecting plenty of energy.
“We’ll be ready for this one. As a coach there’s nothing better really.”
Well maybe winning a final, but this is most certainly a major step in that direction.
CHIEFS: 15 Mils Muliaina (capt), 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Richard Kahui, 12 Callum Bruce, 11 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Toby Morland; 8 Sione Lauaki, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Kevin O’Neill, 4 Craig Clarke, 3 Ben May, 2 Aled de Malmanche, 1 Sona Taumalolo. Reserves: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 James McGougan, 18 Toby Lynn, 19 Serge Lilo, 20 David Bason, 21 Mike Delany, 22 Sosene Anesi.Tweet