CHIEFS v BULLS in Hamilton, Friday 5.35pm AEDT
Chiefs star Damian McKenzie will start at fullback against the Bulls on Friday despite being viewed as an All Blacks five-eighth of the future.
McKenzie played the first two games of the season at No 10 as the replacement for Aaron Cruden but was switched to fullback at late notice to play the Blues in round three when Shaun Stevenson pulled up lame in the warmups.
New Zealand under-20 star Tiaan Falcon was promoted to start at five-eighth in that match and Chiefs coach Colin Cooper has opted to stick with the same playmaking strategy against the men from Pretoria.
It creates an interesting situation for All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who was keen to see more of McKenzie at No 10 as he vies with Richie Mo’unga of the Crusaders to be Beauden Barrett’s backup following Lima Sopoaga’s impending departure to England.
While Cooper has been able to name an unchanged backline after the bye week, there are changes aplenty in the pack.
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Liam Messam reverts to No 8 for the injured Taleni Seu with Lachlan Boshier promoted to start at blindside.
Lock Brodie Retallick has recovered from his eye injury and replaces Michael Allardice while Angus Ta’avao starts at tighthead prop in place of Nepo Laulala who fractured his forearm against the Blues.
Stevenson, Seu and Laulala join an extraordinary Chiefs injury list that also includes Dominic Bird, Tim Nanai-Williams, Charlie Ngatai, Fin Hoeata, Alex Nankivell, Regan Verney, Mitchell Graham, Sosefo Kautai, Sam McNicol, Atu Moli and Kane Hames.
“We are really looking forward to playing in front of our passionate home fans for the first time in the 2018 Super Rugby season,” Cooper said.
“The players have had a bye last week and are excited to go again and build on our last result against the Blues.
“I’m proud of how our players all played for each other last time out, and we will look to again improve against tough South African opposition.
“The team can’t wait to have the home fans behind them.”
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Meanwhile, Bulls captain Burger Odendaal is back in the starting lineup after missing the previous two games due to injury.
He takes over the captaincy from Handre Pollard and the inside centre berth from Johnny Kotze.
Bulls coach John Mitchell has also opted for Divan Rossouw on the left wing, who replaces Duncan Matthews in the other change to the backline.
Up front, Trevor Nyakane comes in for Frans van Wyk at tighthead prop and Thembelani Bholi is back at flanker, with Hanro Liebenberg moving to No 8 where he takes over from the injured Nic de Jager.
De Jager had to return home due to a broken rib and his replacement, Tim Agaba, is bracketed as a replacement with Jason Jenkins.
Conraad van Vuuren is back on the bench in place of Nyakane, while Manie Libbok is another potential debutant for the Bulls.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for us playing the Chiefs in Hamilton,” Mitchell said.
“They have been one of the leading teams in the Super Rugby competition over the last couple of years and this is a massive step up from where we were a year ago.
“We have definite plans on how to approach this match and how to try to beat the Chiefs.
“We will have to do a couple of things well to achieve that, including playing as a unit.”
CHIEFS (15-1): Damian McKenzie, Sean Wainui, Anton Lienert-Brown, Johnny Fa’auli, Solomon Alaimalo, Tiaan Falcon, Brad Weber, Liam Messam, Sam Cane (c), Lachlan Boshier, Mitchell Brown, Brodie Retallick, Angus Ta’avao, Nathan Harris, Aidan Ross
Reserves: Liam Polwart, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Jeff Thwaites, Michael Allardice, Luke Jacobson, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Marty McKenzie/Bailyn Sullivan, Declan O’Donnell
BULLS (15-1): Warrick Gelant, Travis Ismaiel, Jesse Kriel, Burger Odendaal (c), Divan Rossouw, Handre Pollard, Andre Warner, Hanro Liebenberg, Thembelani Bholi, Roelof Smit, Lood de Jager, RG Snyman, Trevor Nyakane, Jaco Visagie, Pierre Schoeman
Reserves: Adriaan Strauss, Lizo Gqoboka, Conraad van Vuuren, Jason Jenkins/Tim Agaba, Marco van Staden, Embrose Papier, Manie Libbok, Johnny Kotze
Referee: Shuhei Kubo (JAP)
Venue: FMG Stadium
HIGHLANDERS v CRUSADERS in Dunedin, Saturday 5.35pm AEDT
Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger has made two changes to his starting lineup for Saturday’s South Island blockbuster against the Crusaders.
Loosehead prop Aki Seiuli gets his first start of the year in place of Daniel Lienert-Brown while Tevita Li replaces namesake Tevita Nabura on the left wing.
On the bench, hooker Ash Dixon returns from injury in place of Greg Pleasants-Tate while Kalolo Tuiloma, Elliot Dixon and Kayne Hammington replace Tyrel Lomax, Shannon Frizell and Josh Renton respectively.
Mauger is a former Crusaders star and the Highlanders are seeking revenge for Mitch Hunt’s dramatic drop goal victory last season.
HIGHLANDERS (15-1): Ben Smith (c), Waisake Naholo, Rob Thompson, Teihorangi Walden, Tevita Li, Lima Sopoaga, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock, Dillon Hunt, Liam Squire, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman, Aki Seiuli
Reserves: Ash Dixon, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Kalolo Tuiloma, Shannon Frizell, Elliot Dixon, Kayne Hammington, Fletcher Smith, Matt Faddes
Referee: Nick Briant (NZ)
Venue: Forsyth Barr Stadium
BRUMBIES v SHARKS in Canberra, Saturday 7.45pm AEDT
Referee: Glen Jackson (NZ)
Venue: GIO Stadium
STORMERS v BLUES in Capetown, Sunday 12.05am AEDT
Referee: Nic Berry (AUS)
LIONS v SUNWOLVES in Johannesburg, Sunday 2.15am AEDT
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge (SA)
Venue: Ellis Park
JAGUARES v REDS in Buenos Aires, Sunday 8.40am AEDT
Referee: Paul Williams (NZ)
Venue: Velez Sarsfield
WARATAHS v REBELS in Sydney, Sunday 4.05pm AEDT
Referee: Brendan Pickerill (NZ)
Venue: Allianz Stadium