Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Unfancied NZ teams enjoying time in the sun

The Hurricanes take on the Cheetahs this weekend. Photo / Getty Images
The Hurricanes take on the Cheetahs this weekend. Photo / Getty Images

Almost a third of the way through the Super Rugby round-robin stage and the Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes are enjoying the high life in the New Zealand conference.

Two of the three, the Highlanders and Hurricanes, will fancy their chances of improving their positions further this weekend with home matches against the Rebels and Cheetahs, respectively, with the Chiefs facing a tougher proposition when hosting the Waratahs.

Perennial favourites the Crusaders face a potentially difficult challenge against the Lions in Johannesburg, with the disappointing Blues guaranteed four points due to their bye.

The Chiefs, who welcome back hooker Hika Elliot and wing Lelia Masaga from respective eye and knee injuries, lead the conference by a point over the Highlanders.

Their match at Waikato Stadium will be a special one for All Black midfielder Richard Kahui.

"Reaching 50 games for the Chiefs will be a special achievement. Every match in this competition is tough so after the bye the boys will be ready for another brutal encounter on Saturday night,'' he said.

Elliot will start in the number two jersey, which gives the hard-working Mo Schwalger a break on the reserves bench, the place where Masaga starts his return.

The Waratahs, booed from the field following their loss at home to the Force a week earlier, redeemed themselves in a 34-30 win over the Sharks and will fancy their chances against the Chiefs after pushing the Highlanders close in Dunedin in round three.

At the Hurricanes, Mark Hammett is thankful he has a loose forward such as Brad Shields to take over from All Black Victor Vito who was a late scratching today due to a calf niggle.

Shields was outstanding as a substitute in the final 20 minutes against the Blues, and that enthusiasm will be necessary against a Cheetahs team which pushed the Crusaders close last weekend.

"He's not a major one but he's got a calf niggle and we don't want to risk it at this time of year,'' Hammett said of Vito. "Brad Shields will get a deserved crack.

"He's got exceptional potential, not only for us, but for higher honours, I believe.''

Lock James Broadhurst and second five-eighths Charlie Ngatai will make their first starts of the season.

Karl Lowe has returned from injury to start at openside flanker in what will be his first appearance for the Hurricanes since he played in the final round of the 2010 Super Rugby competition.

Remarkably, the Hurricanes are searching for their fourth win of the season after their dramatic 26-25 defeat of the Blues last Friday.

Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph has been forced to make five changes to the side that will play the Rebels in Invercargill on Friday night, but two are because of All Blacks returning from injury.

The Highlanders have been hit hard by injuries with Colin Slade's leg break in last weekend's 33-26 defeat to the Brumbies the most serious.

Also on the sidelines are loose forward John Hardie, whose broken toe has ruled him out of the season, hooker Andrew Hore, who has been in brilliant form but is out for a week with a calf strain, and lock Nick Crosswell (knee). These come on top of the injuries to Lima Sopoaga (fractured scapula), Kenny Lynn (fractured neck), Siale Piutau (broken ankle) and wing Telusa Veainu (concussion).

Offsetting that to some degree are the returns of All Blacks Adam Thomson and Jarrad Hoeata. Thomson missed the Brumbies game with a neck complaint and Hoeata will make his first appearance since tearing a pectoral muscle before Christmas.

"It's disappointing but injuries are part of rugby,'' Thomson said. "You never want to lose guys, especially your top players but unfortunately it's nothing new to us. We had the same thing happen last year. Although it will be disappointing to lose guys like that it gives others opportunities.''

All Blacks' first-five Dan Carter will make his first start of the season after playing the second 40 minutes in last weekend's tight victory over the Cheetahs. His return is one of four changes to the team that beat the Cheetahs. Tom Taylor, who started in the No 10 jersey, moves to second five-eighths and blindside flanker George Whitelock and prop Wyatt Crockett both return to the starting 15.

Coach Todd Blackadder said Carter would make a big difference. "Dan has been a world class player for some time and in the touches last week he showed he can take the ball to the line and is nice and composed,'' he said. "We have got some good young lads coming through in Tyler and Tom but they just don't have the same experience. He knows what to do at critical times and he will bring a bit of stability to our attack. He will really get us on the front foot.''

- APNZ

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