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The Western Stormers square off against the Golden Lions in a blockbuster South African derby while Crusaders prop Wyatt Crockett sets a match record in Super Rugby this weekend.
The Canterbury Crusaders and Stormers are the only unbeaten sides remaining going into round eight of the competition, which next year will revert to a 15-team format from its current 18.
The fallout from governing body SANZAAR’s announcement to axe three teams — two from South Africa and one from Australia — has dominated the past week.
Threatened franchise Western Force have launched legal action against Australian rugby chiefs.
Seven-times champion Crusaders ease back into the fray following a bye by hosting the Sunwolves who won their first match of the season last week.
All Blacks captain Kieran Read is back for his first outing of the season having recovered from wrist surgery.
And the match will be a significant milestone for fellow All Black Crockett as he makes a record 176th appearance in Super Rugby.
The 34-year-old will overtake former All Black Keven Mealamu’s record of 175.
SANZAAR chief Andy Marinos described Crockett’s record as “a tremendous achievement for a player who is at the coal face of one of the hardest and most competitive rugby competitions in the world”.
The Crusaders feel comfortable enough to make a raft of changes to the side that beat the Waratahs a fortnight ago. Just five players of their 23 remain in the same position
In the showdown between the top two South African sides, the Stormers are brimming with confidence after inflicting the first loss of the season on the Waikato Chiefs last week while the Lions are coming off a bye.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann believes the week off came at the right time as it allowed several key players including Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Ruan Ackermann, and Elton Jantjies to get over niggling injuries.
The Stormers “are the team to beat in South Africa and it’s going to take something special to get the better of them at Newlands,” Ackermann said.
“They’re playing an exciting brand of rugby and their skill levels are extremely high so it’s going to be a huge challenge going there.”
The Stormers, though, have injury woes after the punishing outing against the Chiefs with flanker Cobus Wiese and locks Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth unable to train early in the week.
They are also in a tough sequence of matches with home games against the Chiefs and Lions to be followed by a trip to New Zealand to face the Crusaders, Otago Highlanders and Wellington Hurricanes.
The Chiefs, looking to get their season back on track, are in Bloemfontein to face a Central Cheetahs side desperate to prove they deserve to survive the Super Rugby culling process.
“These are challenging and uncertain times,” the Cheetahs said in a statement this week.
“We strongly believe that through an honest and fair process we stand a strong chance of retaining our Super Rugby status.”
The defending champion Wellington Hurricanes are in Auckland to face a Blues side which has Sonny Bill Williams starting in a new unique jersey which does not feature the logo of team sponsor Bank of New Zealand (BNZ) to conform with his Muslim beliefs.
But Williams has agreed to wear, instead, the logo of child health service Plunket whose principal sponsor is the BNZ.
In the remaining matches, top Australian side ACT Brumbies play the struggling Melbourne Rebels, who along with Western Force are under threat of being kicked out of the 2018 competition.
Elsewhere, the Queensland Reds are at home to the Southern Kings and the Northern Bulls return to South Africa after an unsuccessful road trip to host the Jaguares.
A piece of individual brilliance by Shaun Stevenson sparked a Waikato Chiefs revival to maintain their unbeaten record with a 28-12 victory over the Northern Bulls in Hamilton on Saturday.
The Bulls evoked memories of their past glory days when they stunned the Chiefs to lead 9-3 at half-time and continued to apply pressure after the resumption.
But with 30 minutes to play, Stevenson received the ball near the 10-metre mark, stepped around his opposite Jamba Ulengo, kicked ahead and won the race for the ball to score in the corner.
It started a three-try, 25-point spree which earned the Chiefs a bonus point to give them 24 points out of a possible 25 from five games.
“Coming off the bye we were eager to start well but it didn’t transpire that way. The first 40 was pretty disappointing and when we review it I think there’ll be a few hard truths,” captain Aaron Cruden said.
“But that second 40 was really for the fans. They came out to see an exciting brand of footy and I think we produced that in the second half.”
It was another disappointing finish for the Bulls, who last won in Hamilton in 2010, the same year they last held the Super title.
This year they are now one from five but captain Adriaan Strauss felt they are showing improvement.
“At times we showed some excitement, and some intent but the execution at vital times and pressure moments is not there yet. But we’re working on it,” he said.
In the first half, the Bulls dominated possession and worked the Chiefs around the ground.
But they were unable to cross the line, and for all the pressure they applied their only points came from three Handre Pollard penalties.
Cruden landed one penalty for the Chiefs but with two other potential shots at goal they opted for the line out drive and lost the ball on both occasions.
The game turned with Stevenson’s try in the 50th minute with Cruden’s conversion putting the Chiefs ahead for the first time.
Cruden landed a further two penalties and Pollard one to push the Chiefs out to a 16-12 lead before the Chiefs stepped up a gear in the last 10 minutes with tries to Damian McKenzie and Atu Moli.
The Chiefs head to South Africa to play the Stormers next week while the Bulls are in Tokyo to play the Sunwolves for the second time in three weeks.
The Waikato Chiefs have been told to get their act together for their Super Rugby clash with the Northern Bulls after an unconvincing win over the struggling Melbourne Rebels.
Coach Dave Rennie read the riot act to the two-time champions after they needed a late burst to overcome Australia’s bottom-placed team in their last outing.
“There were some carefully chosen words,” Rennie said, after showing his players images from the Rebels match. “When the guys looked at it, they were pretty embarrassed.”
The Chiefs return from a bye with a record of four wins out of four games so far to lie second in the New Zealand conference behind the Canterbury Crusaders.
The Crusaders will also need to improve after being sent to scrum school following a series of collapses in their recent wins against the Queensland Reds and Western Force.
Despite having a pack bulging with All Blacks, the seven-time champions have been put through a refresher course in scrum techniques ahead of their game against the NSW Waratahs in Sydney.
“We want it to be a contest, and we don’t want re-sets like that,” said assistant forwards coach Jason Ryan.
The Wellington Hurricanes will need to contend with the after-effects of Cyclone Debbie as they take on the Queensland Reds in storm-soaked Brisbane.
As well as the severe weather, the Hurricanes will also have to cope with the loss of captain and All Blacks hooker Dane Coles, who is nursing an injured knee.
Meanwhile the Western Stormers revealed an unusual approach to training ahead of their game against the unfancied Central Cheetahs.
While the Cheetahs may not pose formidable opposition, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck is taking a long-term view and preparing his side as if facing a New Zealand franchise.
A quirk of the draw meant the Stormers did not play a New Zealand side last year until the quarter-finals when thrashed 60-21 by the Chiefs.
They play all five New Zealand teams this year, starting with the Chiefs next weekend, and flyhalf Robert du Preez said preparations were already under way.
“Our training has changed a lot,” Du Preez said. “Every Thursday we do what we call a ‘Kiwi Day’ just to prepare for them because we knew that they pose a different threat.
“We go hard at each other on Thursdays.”
In the congested Africa 2 conference, the Golden Lions play the Coastal Sharks with both sides having one loss from five outings so far.
Argentina’s Jaguares, with a similar record, have a bye and will drop down the ladder as a result.
In Australia, the ACT Brumbies also have a bye leaving the way open for the Waratahs and the Reds to challenge them for the top spot.
The remaining two matches see the Otago Highlanders play the Rebels in Dunedin on Friday, while the Auckland Blues host the Western Force on Saturday.
Defending champions Wellington Hurricanes are relishing the prospect of “brutal” clash with the Waikato Chiefs on Friday in what will be their first real test of the Super rugby season.
“It’s going to be a real scrap,” Hurricanes assistant coach Richard Watt said of the showdown between the only two sides to take maximum points from the first two rounds.
After scoring 24 tries and amassing 154 points against the Sunwolves and Melbourne Rebels, Watt said the Hurricanes were looking forward to the intensity of playing a top New Zealand side.
“The boys love these home games and they hate losing to each other,” he said, describing New Zealand derbies as “pretty brutal” affairs.
“You don’t even have to mention anything to the boys this week. They’re so up for this game.”
The Chiefs, who had to work hard for their wins over the Otago Highlanders and Auckland Blues, have received a boost this week with the return of flanker Sam Cane who will clash with his All Blacks understudy Ardie Savea.
While the battle of the New Zealand titans headlines round three, Hurricanes head coach Chris Boyd has taken a long-term view to tip South Africa’s Golden Lions as the likely winners of the competition.
The unbeaten Lions have sent a depleted squad to Argentina to play the Jaguares in the Africa 2 conference while Africa 1 leaders Western Stormers are away to the bottom-ranked Southern Kings.
The only other unbeaten side after two rounds, the Canterbury Crusaders, travel to Queensland to face the Reds on Saturday.
- Lions favoured -
Boyd believes the complicated Super rugby draw which sees the Lions avoid all the New Zealand sides during the conference phase should see the South Africans top the regular season and be set to host the final.
The Lions, beaten by the Hurricanes in last year’s final, are without five Springboks for their Jaguares match.
It was the banana-skin game for them last year when they were also under strength and lost to the Jaguares in the final pool match, costing them the top spot in the playoffs.
The Stormers should be untroubled in maintaining their unbeaten start to the season when they face the Kings in Port Elizabeth and the Crusaders are expected to be too strong for the Reds in Brisbane.
The test for the Reds, up against an All Blacks-laden pack, is how they bounce back from their surprise loss to the Western Force last week.
“Every player should be highly motivated to compete for every minute of this game. It’s what you have to do against the Crusaders, because if you are not as relentless as they are, you are going to pay,” Reds coach Nick Stiles said.
Two years ago the Otago Highlanders were Super champions but this year they have been hard hit by injuries, are winless after two games and will be hard pressed to get on the board against the Auckland Blues.
Fresh from beating the Reds last week, the Force head to Canberra to play the ACT Brumbies who are trying to avoid a hat-trick of losses for the first time since 2011.
The Waratahs, with Wallaby fly-half Bernard Foley still sidelined by concussion symptoms, are in South Africa against the Coastal Sharks while the Central Cheetahs are at home to the luckless Sunwolves.
The Waikato Chiefs ran in eight tries to one as they put a woeful Queensland Reds to the sword 50-5 in their Super Rugby clash in Brisbane on Friday.
The Chiefs were almost unstoppable, scoring 33 points in the first half and 17 in the second to record their biggest ever winning margin in Super Rugby.
They dominated from the outset against a home side that were no match for the Chiefs, who cemented their position at the top of the New Zealand Super Rugby table with the bonus point win.
The Chiefs opened the scoring in the second minute thanks to a converted try centre to Seta Tamanivalu, then doubled that lead 10 minutes later when front-rower Atu Moli touched down.
The Reds struck back thanks to a Chris Kuridrani try in the corner but that was as good as it got for the hapless home team, who were rocked when scrumhalf Nick Frisby was shown a yellow card for kicking the ball out of Sam Cane’s hands as he was in the process of scoring.
Referee Nick Briant awarded a penalty try to Waikato, then reduced Queensland to 13 men soon after when he sent fullback James Tuttle to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle.
In the 10 minutes the two players were off the field, the Chiefs scored 19 points and the game was over as a contest.
The Chiefs lost some momentum in the second half but with 23 minutes to go they kicked into gear and ran in three tries, two to fullback Damian McKenzie, who also booted five conversions for a personal tally of 20 points.
Waikato play the Otago Highlanders in their last match of the regular season next week, while the Queenslanders will hope to finish the season on a better note when they host the Melbourne Rebels.
Chiefs captain Sam Cane said despite the scoreline, his team would have to improve against the Highlanders next week.
“A lot of our tries would have come from one or two phases so it was pleasing to be able to convert those,” Cane said.
“But next week against the Highlanders we’ll probably have to hold onto the pill a wee bit longer.
“At this stage of the season it’s all about building momentum heading into the finals.”
Waisake Naholo bagged a double on his return to Super Rugby as the Otago Highlanders downed the Waikato Chiefs 26-13, allowing the Canterbury Crusaders to takeover the competition leadership.
Naholo, the top try-scorer last year but out of action this season since he suffered a leg injury in the opening round, touched down twice in the second half as the defending champions confirmed they are again serious contenders.
The Crusaders, courtesy of their 38-5 win over the Queensland Reds on Friday, lead the competition on points differential over the Chiefs and have a game in hand.
The Highlanders, who face the Crusaders next weekend, have lost three of 10 games but lie just five points behind the leaders and captain Ben Smith said the return of Naholo had brought a new energy to the side.
“He’s had that presence during the week at training and the boys get excited when they see the ball in his hands. It’s great to have him back,” Smith said.
The Chiefs had been the competition pacesetters although their early season cohesion has deserted them in recent weeks with narrow wins over the Auckland Blues, Wellington Hurricanes and Coastal Sharks.
“For one reason or another the passes weren’t sticking. We have to be better, it’s disappointing,” Chiefs captain Sam Cane said.
The Chiefs set out with a game plan to run the Highlanders off the park but instead let themselves down with repeated handling errors and were forced to resort to a kicking game for territory.
They had first points on the board with a close range Aaron Cruden penalty but although they dominated possession for most of the first half they were held back from the line by a watertight Highlanders defence.
The southerners, however, made the most of their rare forays into Chiefs territory and turned with a 13-3 lead.
Lima Sopoaga landed two penalties and prop Daniel Lienert-Brown scampered 22 metres for the opening try.
Naholo scored his first try, finishing off a break by fellow Fijian wing Patrick Osborne early in the second half when the Chiefs were down to 14 men with Charlie Ngatai in the sin-bin for a tip tackle.
Ngatai returned to the field to make amends by setting Cruden away for a try in the corner as the Chiefs reduced the gap to 18-8.
But Naholo put the outcome beyond doubt with his second try in the right-hand corner after almost the entire Highlanders side featured in a lengthy build up.
Sopoaga missed the conversion but landed a second penalty before Sam Vaka scored a consolation try for the Chiefs on full-time.
Super Rugby pacesetters the Waikato Chiefs ground out a narrow 24-22 win over the Coastal Sharks on Friday, with coach Dave Rennie conceding they were lucky to stay top of the competition.
The Sharks outscored the Chiefs two tries to three but All Blacks fly-half Aaron Cruden proved the difference, booting four penalties while the South Africans could only manage one.
It was the seventh straight win for the Chiefs but Rennie admitted they did not look convincing.
“It was a pretty flat performance,” he said.
“When we did we put them under pressure we stuttered our way through it and we were lucky to get a result.”
The Chiefs also rode their luck last week in a one-point win against the Wellington Hurricanes and Rennie will be looking for improvement against defending champions the Otago Highlanders next week.
The defeat means the Sharks have four wins, one draw and four losses so far this season, retaining second place in the Africa 2 conference.
The Chiefs started the match strongly with a try in the first minute after Seta Tamanivalu caught the defence napping.
Number eight Michael Leitch crossed over in the corner after 23 minutes to extend the lead.
Kyle Cooper hit back from a line-out and Garth April crossed for the Sharks’ second just before half-time to make it 15-all.
Cruden’s accurate penalty kicking kept the scoreboard ticking over, putting the game beyond the Sharks, despite hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle’s converted try in the 72 minute.
Waikato Chiefs’ captain Sam Cane admitted his side were “a bit lucky” after a 28-27 victory over the Wellington Hurricanes exposed cracks in their grip on the Super Rugby competition.
The Chiefs benefited from a questionable try in a wafer-thin victory that showed the Hurricanes are also likely to be serious contenders at the business end of the season.
The Western Stormers and the Golden Lions also remain threats as the regular season passed the halfway stage, as do the ACT Brumbies and Canterbury Crusaders who clash later on Sunday in Canberra.
At the bottom of the table, it was a historic weekend for Japan’s Sunwolves who posted their first win at the expense of the Jaguares from Argentina in the battle of the competition newcomers.
The Chiefs triumphed after a dubious try to register their seventh win in eight games while the Hurricanes dominated much of the game only to let themselves down with handling lapses and wayward goal kicking.
“We were a bit lucky,” Cane conceded. “We didn’t play very well. The Hurricanes were probably the better team.”
The Hurricanes had an edge in the forwards and fly-half Beauden Barrett frequently exposed defensive lapses.
He set up the Canes’ first try for Cory Jane, scored himself, landed a pressure drop goal and made a break in the last play of the game that should have produced a winning try.
But on the downside he missed two penalties and two conversions, while his pass to an unmarked Jason Woodward at the end of the game was dropped.
They also received the benefit of the doubt when their first try was awarded to Seta Tamanivalu although replays seemed inconclusive as to whether the ball was legally grounded.
In Cape Town, veteran Schalk Burger and debutant Brandon Thomson featured in the Stormers 40-22 win over the Queensland Reds to stay top of the Africa 1 conference.
Burger came off the bench to provide telling leadership after the Australians threatened an upset by taking a five-point lead with 28 minutes remaining.
Thomson, a 21-year-old who started the season as the fourth-choice Stormers fly-half, also came on in the second half and calmly kicked three penalties and a conversion.
The Lions, the Africa 2 conference leaders, used a 10-minute numerical advantage to score three tries en route to a 45-10 bonus-point triumph over Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth.
They were up 14-5 when Kings flanker Thembelani Bholi was sin-binned and the score had ballooned to 33-5 by the time he returned.
The Coastal Sharks snapped a three-match losing streak with a 15-14 win over defending champions the Otago Highlanders in Dunedin.
Gary April booted five penalties to score all the points for the Sharks who were tryless despite the Highlanders playing most of the game with 14 men after centre Jason Emery was red-carded for a dangerous tackle on Willie le Roux.
In Tokyo, the Sunwolves rebounded from last week’s 92-17 hiding by the Central Cheetahs to stun the Jaguares 36-28.
The Cheetahs, meanwhile, were beaten 36-14 by the Melbourne Rebels who scored 26 unanswered points in the second half.
The NSW Waratahs ran in six tries to one to beat the Western Force 49-13.
Israel Dagg led the Crusaders to within two points of the pace-setting Waikato Chiefs as Super Rugby exploded in a weekend try-fest blighted only by the Sunwolves’ “embarrassing” meltdown.
Dagg marked his return after a long injury lay-off with two of the Canterbury side’s five tries in their 32-15 victory over the Jaguares on Friday.
It launched a 52-try weekend which included hat-tricks for the ACT Brumbies’ Joe Tomane and the Central Cheetahs’ Sergeal Petersen and Paul Schoeman.
The Cheetahs scored 14 tries in their 92-17 mauling of the Sunwolves as the fledgling Japanese franchise suffered one of the most catastrophic defeats in the history of Superrugby.
The week eight headline act where the Golden Lions overpowered the Western Stormers 29-22 in the battle for South African supremacy, produced only three tries amid an abundance of penalties.
The Chiefs, who had the weekend off, remain at the head of the overall table with 29 points with the Crusaders now on 27 and the Wellington Hurricanes on 25.
But under the tournament system guaranteeing the conference leaders fill the top four places, the Stormers (24), Lions (22) and Brumbies (21) rank second to fourth with the Crusaders and Hurricanes fifth and sixth.
The Otago Highlanders and Northern Bulls, both on 23 and faring better than the Lions and Brumbies, fill the bottom two places among the top eight.
The 49-Test Dagg, who missed the cut for the World Cup squad last year and was then sidelined by a shoulder injury, provided the impetus the Crusaders needed to notch their sixth consecutive win.
“I don’t want to get too carried away. It was just one small step for me… A step in the right direction,” Dagg said.
The Cheetahs would not be getting carried away either as they neared a century of points to down a woeful Sunwolves.
It ranked with the Crusaders 96-19 thrashing of the Waratahs in 2002 and the Northern Bulls 92-3 crushing of the Queensland Reds nine seasons ago as the most lopsided performances in Super Rugby history.
The Sunwolves’ capitulation added fuel to recent criticism by England coach Eddie Jones who believed adding teams to the Super competition this year had “really dropped the standards”.
Former Springboks coach Nick Mallett agreed the Sunwolves’ flop was not a good look.
“It was embarrassing. Imagine what the scoreline could have been if the Sunwolves were playing one of the top New Zealand teams,” Mallett said.
Lions’ halves Elton Jantjies and Faf de Klerk played crucial roles in their 29-22 triumph over the Stormers in Johannesburg.
Jantjies scored 19 points from two conversions, four penalties, and a drop goal to move to second on the competition scoring, eight behind the Chiefs’ Damian McKenzie.
Scrum-half De Klerk scored a game-breaking try when he came off the bench in the second half and crashed through the Stormers pack touchdown.
The Brumbies rebounded from their recent hiding to the Chiefs by beating the Waratahs 26-20, downing their arch-rivals twice in a season for the first time since 2012.
Tomane bagged his first five-pointer after only seven minutes and although the ‘Tahs fought back to lead 17-12 late in the first half they could not hold on.
Beauden Barrett scored two of the Hurricanes six tries as he guided his side to a 38-13 win over the Rebels in Melbourne, while the Northern Bulls touched down five times in their 41-22 win over the Queensland Reds.
The Auckland Blues, in a match dedicated to former lock Kurtis Haiu who died during the week, secured their third win of the season when they beat the Coastal Sharks 23-18.
South Africa’s Western Stormers and two-time New Zealand winners Waikato Chiefs pushed their Super Rugby title claims this weekend as holders Otago Highlanders became the Queensland Reds first victims of the season.
The Stormers extended their record to 5-1 this year with a 46-19 triumph over Japan’s win-less Sunwolves in Cape Town, while the Chiefs squeezed home 29-23 over the Auckland Blues in their New Zealand derby in Hamilton.
Australia’s Reds clung on for their first victory of the season and ended Otago’s five-match winning sequence with a 28-27 win in Brisbane.
Seven-time champions Canterbury Crusaders produced a great escape to knock over the hapless Western Force 20-19 in Perth, while winger Julian Savea scored a hat-trick of tries in the Hurricanes 40-22 victory over Argentina’s Jaguares in Wellington.
The Golden Lions replaced fellow South African side Coastal Sharks as Africa 2 conference leaders with a 24-9 win in Durban and the Northern Bulls tossed aside the inept Southern Kings 38-6 in Port Elizabeth.
Australian trio ACT Brumbies, Melbourne Rebels and NSW Waratahs along with South Africa’s Central Cheetahs all had this weekend off.
The Sunwolves, now without a win in six games in their debut Super Rugby campaign, were reduced to 14 men by the red-carding of lock Timothy Bond.
Fly-half Jean-Luc du Plessis displayed exceptional footwork to score the Stormers seventh and final try to seal a bonus point.
The Chiefs had to dig deep to avoid an upset loss to the Blues in a frantic New Zealand derby.
Waikato scored five tries to two but the game was in the balance until the dying minutes, when All Black lock Brodie Retallick’s try capped a superb return from injury.
The result takes the Chiefs winning streak to five matches, cementing their place at the top of the New Zealand conference and confirming their status as the form team of this year’s competition.
In Brisbane, the Reds outplayed the Highlanders in the first half to lead 22-6 and extended the advantage to 28-6, but it was all hands to the pump for much of the second half as the Kiwi champions roared back to just miss out.
It was the Reds’ sixth straight win at home over the Highlanders.
The Crusaders were the dominant side for most of their match with the Force, but found themselves staring down the barrel of a shock defeat when they trailed 19-13 with just two minutes of play remaining against a side with only one win from its previous six outings.
But just when all seemed almost lost Jordan Taufua barged over close to the posts for Richie Mo’unga to convert and snatch the lead.
In Wellington, Savea bounced back from public humiliation over his lack of fitness with a swag of tries for the Hurricanes.
In the first outing for the All Blacks’ star after being put on an intensive fitness regime two weeks ago he showed signs of his blockbusting best, breaking the game open with a touchdown double just on halftime.
The Hurricanes outscored the Jaguares six tries to three, with the bonus-point try scored by replacement prop Ben May on fulltime.
The Lions survived intense early pressure to lead 18-6 at half-time in a match against the Sharks that produced virtually no momentum due to countless reset scrums, penalties and unforced errors.
The Bulls kept the Kings scoreless when reduced to 13 men and ultimately cantered home after having lock RG Snyman and tighthead prop Marcel van der Merwe sin-binned for professional fouls during the first half.
The explosive attack of the Otago Highlanders will be at full strength for Saturday’s Super Rugby wildcard playoff against Waikato Chiefs after powerful All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa was passed fit to play.
Fekitoa, who missed the last match of the regular season with a groin problem, comes back into a backline which also boasts All Blacks Aaron and Ben Smith as well as free-scoring wingers Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osborne.
The Highlanders will be looking for their first victory in post-season play since 1999 to move on to a semi-final against the Wellington Hurricanes or New South Wales Waratahs.
Highlanders co-captain Nasi Manu also returns to the back row after recovering from a neck problem for the clash under the roof at the Otago Stadium in Dunedin.
The Chiefs have been ravaged by injury this season and their squad was further depleted when top try-scorer Charlie Ngatai (concussion) and fullback Tom Marshall (knee) were ruled out of Saturday’s match.
Tim Nanai-Williams moves into the centres to replace Ngatai in a midfield partnership with his cousin Sonny Bill Williams, while Damian McKenzie starts in the number 15 shirt.
The match pitches third most potent attack in Super Rugby against one of the stingiest defences in the competition in the twice champion Chiefs.
The Highlanders have won the last two meetings between the sides in Dunedin, most recently a 36-9 victory in late May, but the Chiefs won six of the seven previous encounters in Otago before that.
South Africa’s Stormers take on ACT Brumbies in the other wildcard playoff in Cape Town later on Saturday to determine the fourth semi-finalist.
The Stormers are seeded third after winning the South African conference so will travel to Sydney to face the reigning champion Waratahs in the last four on June 27 if they get past the Brumbies.
That would send the winner of the all-New Zealand wildcard playoff to Wellington to face the Hurricanes, who are top seeds after topping the regular season standings.
The Canberra-based Brumbies had an injury concern over David Pocock but the Wallabies flanker is on course to play after progressing through the concussion protocols for a head knock he received last week against the Canterbury Crusaders.
Australia flyhalf Matt Toomua is also expected to start after coming off the bench last weekend on his return from an ankle injury.
The Stormers will be without captain and hulking back row presence Duane Vermeulen for the match as the Springbok number eight is recovering from a neck injury.