The game between the Chiefs and the Highlanders in Hamilton tonight is a massive one for many reasons, not least of which are the key match-ups across the park.

It is the game of the round for the fact that, with so many players leaving the All Blacks at the end of last year, many individuals have an opportunity to make statements during what will be a high-pressure occasion.

Many in-form players will face off, including halfbacks Brad Weber v Aaron Smith, first-fives Aaron Cruden v Lima Sopoaga, and fullbacks Damian McKenzie v Ben Smith. In the midfield, Chiefs Charlie Ngatai and Seta Tamanivalu will come up against All Black Malakai Fekitoa.

On the flip side to the individuals who can change a game in dramatic fashion, is how the game managers take control of it. I'm talking about the captaincy of Sam Cane v Ben Smith, the decision-making of the halfbacks, and, most importantly, how the first-fives perform.


This is a must-win game, particularly for the Highlanders, who have dropped three matches this season and are fighting to stay in contention, so the control exerted by Cruden and Sopoaga will go a long way to deciding the result.

The pair have big decisions to make, such as; when do I go to the line to challenge the defence and ease the pressure on my midfield? Their kicking game must be spot-on too because McKenzie and Ben Smith are two of the best in the competition in running a poorly-directed kick back and pouring the pressure on. Both players can cut you apart.

And then there is the goalkicking. Will Cruden - given back the tee in the narrow win over the Sharks last weekend - continue? Or will Chiefs coach Dave Rennie hand it back to McKenzie?

Cruden will know the All Blacks selectors want him kicking. Ben Smith doesn't kick goals and nor does Israel Dagg, so their first-five will have those duties against Wales in June.

A lot of players - probably 80 per cent - wouldn't respond well to that external pressure, but Cruden is one of the exceptions. I think he will thrive on it because he is so composed and has been through so much on and off the field.

It is one aspect of a highly-anticipated match. I can't wait.