This is the real thing. In between all the hype and expectancy of probably the first professional sport worldwide to be played without crowd restrictions, this weekend’s first two matches in the Super Rugby Aotearoa will revitalise the age-old rivalry between teams in New Zealand that dates back to when the game began.
Near-full stadia in Dunedin and at Eden Park in Auckland will provide spectators with the expected derby needle when the tournament, the replacement for the suspended Zanzaar Super Rugby series, kicks off between the Highlanders and the Chiefs on Saturday 09:05 SA time, with the Blues and Hurricanes meeting early on Sunday morning (kick-off 05:35).
The first two matches also have some interesting selections and omissions.
Former Wales coach, Warren Gatland who also coached the last two British and Irish Lions sides to Australia and New Zealand respectively and who will be in charge of the Lions tour to South Africa next year, will have his focus squarely on the Highlanders match when his Chiefs charges run on in Dunedin.
All Black legend Dan carter, now 38 and back in New Zealand after stints in France and Japan stints after a rugby lifetime of rugby for Crusaders, is not fit enough yet to be considered for his new franchise, the Blues.
But the Blues will have the brilliant Beauden Barrett in their side – and he, too, won’t be the pivot, where the promising Otere Black has been selected for Sunday’s match against the Hurricanes.
It will be Barrett’s first match for the Blues after transferring from the Hurricanes, and he can surely expect a warm welcome from his former teammates and co-captain TJ Perenara, who was his partner at the Canes for many years and also for the All Blacks. Flanker Ardie Savea is also back for the Canes after an operation end 2019
Barrett will not play against his brother and fellow-All Blacks Jordie, who has a should niggle.
The seemingly never-ending career pf Ross Geldenhuys, now who has played first-class rugby for 14 teams in South Africa and New Zealand, continues. The son of former WP looseforward Piet Geldenhuys is on the bench for Chiefs.
Who will win the first two matches on Saturday?
The Chiefs and Highlanders drew their last match, but before then the Chiefs had lost only one of their last five Super Rugby games against the Highlanders.
The Chiefs should therefore be regarded as favourites, especially as the Highlanders have lost five, including the last three, of their last six Super Rugby games.
The Blues have bragging rights after winning their last match against the Hurricanes after a losing streak of nine matches against them. The Blues are also on a winning streak of four matches.
♦ Last when these two matches kick off, are the experimental law changes New Zealand Rugby have introduced.
Of those the two most interesting are a golden point winner in extra-time if scores are level after 80 minutes; and that a player who has been red-carded can be replaced after 20 minutes with a team mate, instead of playing the rest of the match one player short.
Highlanders vs Chiefs, kick-off 09:05 Saturday
15 Mitch Hunt, 14 Sam Gilbert, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Patelesio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Josh Ioane, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Marino Mikaele Tu’u, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Josh Dickson, 4 Paripari Parkinson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon (captain), 1 Ayden Johnstone. Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 20 Teariki Ben-Nicholas, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Teihorangi Walden, 23 Vilimoni Koroi.
15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Shaun Stevenson, 13 Quinn Tupaea, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Sean Wainui, 10 Kaleb Trask, 9 Brad Weber (captain), 8 Pita Gus Sowakula, 7 Lachlan Boshier, 6 Luke Jacobson, 5 Tupou Vaa’i, 4 Mitchell Brown, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 1 Aidan Ross. Replacements: 16 Bradley Slater, 17 Ryan Coxon, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Naitoa Ah Kuoi, 20 Dylan Nel, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Etene Nanai-Seturo.
Referee: Paul Williams
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill, Ben O’Keeffe
TMO: James Doleman
Blues vs Hurricanes, kick-off 05:35 Sunday
15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Otere Black, 9 Sam Nock; 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Tom Robinson, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (captain), 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman. Replacements: 16 Kurt Eklund, 17 Ezekiel Lindenmuth, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Dalton Papalii, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Matt Duffie.
15 Chase Tiatia, 14 Wes Goosen, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Ben Lam, 10 Jackson Garden-Bachop, 9 Thomas Perenara (co-captain), 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Du’Plessis Kirifi, 6 Reed Prinsep, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 James Blackwell, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Dane Coles (co-captain), 1 Fraser Armstrong. Replacements: 16 Asafo Aumua, 17 Tevita Mafileo, 18 Alex Fidow, 19 Isaia Walker-Leawere, 20 Vaea Fifita, 21 Ardie Savea, 22 Jamie Booth, 23 Billy Proctor.
Referee: Mike Fraser
Assistant referees: Ben O’Keeffe, James Doleman
TMO: Brendon Pickerill