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The seven-year Chiefs-Highlanders battle

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Breakdown battle remains a constant when Chiefs and Highlanders meet

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

The Chiefs and Highlanders lock horns tomorrow in the opener of Super Rugby 24 at FMG Stadium Waikato.

That is, Rugby Park. For some reason, my thoughts harked back to opening weekend 2012 when the same two sides faced down at the same Hamilton venue.

Only the Smiths – Ben and Aaron – for the Highlanders and Brodie Retallick for the Chiefs will again suit up in 2019. But while the personnel in rugby changes almost like the wind, some things stay the same.

The contest for the breakdown, for one.

You can kick your goals, win all your set-piece ball and tackle your hearts out, but come second in the collisions and invariably you come second on the scoreboard.

Back to that balmy Waikato night on February 25, 2012. I was there covering the clash for Rugby News magazine, back when it was still your indispensable weekly publication.

The crowd was expectant. The Chiefs had never won the title, but Dave Rennie and Tom Coventry were the new coaches and they had pulled together a seemingly disparate bunch from no less than nine provinces. The Chiefs faithful were desperate to pin their hopes on men whom they did not know well but had come with reputations, big and small.

They were to be disappointed that night.

It was not that the Highlanders, astutely coached by Jamie Joseph, won 23-19. Aaron Smith and future Scotland international Phil Burleigh and Chris Noakes – Chris Noakes! – kicked five goals. Lelia ‘The Flash’ Masaga scored the Chiefs’ only try and Aaron Cruden also slotted five goals. Those were the bare bones of the scoring.

No, it was the fact that the Highlanders brought a physicality and accuracy to the collisions that clearly surprised the Chiefs. The southerners fielded Nasi Manu, another future Scotland international John Hardie, and Adam Thomson in the loose trio, but importantly they had hard nuts such as Nick Crosswell and Andrew Hore in the tight. Centre Tamati Ellison, incidentally, also handy over the ball, virtually jumped off a plane from Japan and proceeded to have a blinder.

The Chiefs had no doubt been doing all the right things in pre-season, and they fielded Fritz Lee, Sam Cane and Liam Messam in the loose. Brodie Retallick was at lock, while Tanerau Latimer came off the bench.

But the Highlanders got the hard point of their shoulders on and just brought unremitting early season intensity. In Thomson they had the best player on the park and a tremendous Super Rugby performer (he wasn’t a bad All Black, either). He was fast, a more than useful fetcher and a viable lineout option. That night he played like a combination of Richard Hill and Neil Back, or Rodney So’oialo and Richie McCaw, if you will.

The Chiefs looked somewhat shell-shocked in the after-match press conference. But there was a certain steel in coach Rennie’s eyes that this was the first and last time they would lose the breakdown battle. That 80 minutes may have in fact sown the seeds for the franchise’s first Super Rugby triumph. They reeled off nine straight wins and tweaked their match-day squad. The uncompromising, bruising Manu Samoa rep Kane Thompson usurped Lee for the No 8 jersey, Cane got tougher and Liam Messam upped the ante to play some of the best footy of his career. Mike FitzGerald played some hard-nosed code off the bench or starting at lock. Coventry drove his pack relentlessly and it paid off.

So to tomorrow night. The Highlanders have bolstered their lineout by playing Jackson Hemopo on the side of the scrum. In James Lentjes and Luke Whitelock, they have fierce tacklers, both solid over the ball. But there is no Liam Squire nor Elliot Dixon, both breakdown bruisers, while fetcher Dillon Hunt wears jersey No 20.

The Chiefs might just have the breakdown edge, even without Cane. They have fielded two opensides in Lachlan Boshier and Mitch Brown, while No 8 Tyler Ardron, and locks Retallick and Michael Allardice relish shifting bodies. Then they can wheel on rugged ball carriers like Taleni Seu and Jesse Parete.

Keep a close eye on the collisions. That battle will set the tone, perhaps for the season.

Rugby World Cup City Guides – Oita:

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Breakdown battle remains a constant when Chiefs and Highlanders meet