Warren Gatland wants the 2020 Chiefs to go down in history.
The year has been a strange one. Gatland returned to New Zealand to take the reins for the Super Rugby season only to see it halted after seven rounds due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
Instead of spending time at Chiefs HQ in Hamilton, Gatland found himself in lockdown at Waihi Beach with his family. Now, the former Wales coach meets another unexpected chapter in the form of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Gatland will lead the Chiefs into Dunedin to meet the Highlanders in the opening round of the New Zealand-only competition, and has stressed the importance of the competition some may see as a glorified, prolonged All Blacks trial.
"Whoever wins this, people are going to remember it," Gatland said.
"Everyone's going to remember the year there was Covid-19 and the year we had the New Zealand competition. No one's going to remember who finished second or third, but everyone's going to remember who won it."
With that in mind, Gatland has taken a considered approach to naming his opening round squad. Captain Sam Cane has been left out of the 23 to allow him another week to nurse a niggling back injury, while utility back Solomon Alaimalo has also been omitted so he can return fresh later in the competition. Star recruit Aaron Cruden has been named on the bench behind promising young No 10 Kaleb Trask after being hampered in the preseason by a calf issue.
"It's not in any way disrespecting the opposition. We're just being smart in the way that we manage some of the players," Gatland said.
"It's about rewarding the players who have taken a full part in training the past four weeks, and one or two of them we'll introduce in the next couple of weeks. It's good for the squad, and it's a bit of security for it we pick up injuries later in this tournament then we'll have guys who have got some rugby under their belts."
The Chiefs will be buoyed by the return of All Blacks Nepo Laulala and Luke Jacobson, who start at tighthead prop and blindside flanker respectively, while Taranaki lock Tupou Vaa'i will start on his Super Rugby debut.
Saturday's match against the Highlanders will be one of the first sporting events in the world to see the return of fans in the stands, with a full house expected at Forsyth Barr Stadium adding to the team's anticipation.
"It's really exciting for us. We've had four weeks building up to this game, the boys have been training really well and they're chomping at the bit.
"It's going to be a great atmosphere – potentially a full house – so that's going to be pretty special. We've spoken about the challenge of that. For the Highlanders this is another way to resurrect the season. They would be disappointed with how Super Rugby was going for them, so they've got a fresh opportunity.
"I've said to the boys - the Highlanders are going to be incredibly motivated because if you can't win at home in front of a full house then your season is going to struggle. That makes teams incredibly dangerous and gives them a huge amount of motivation to want to perform."
The Highlanders have sprung a surprise in their team, with Sam Gilbert named to debut on the wing, while fellow winger Vilimoni Koroi is also a chance to debut off the bench, after returning from All Blacks Sevens duty. Josh Ioane returns to the number 10 jersey after playing at 12 earlier this year, with Mitch Hunt moving to fullback.
Chiefs: Damian McKenzie, Shaun Stevenson, Quinn Tupaea, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sean Wainui, Kaleb Trask, Brad Weber, Pita Gus Sowakula, Lachlan Boshier, Luke Jacobson, Tupou Vaa'i, Mitch Brown, Nepo Laulala, Samisoni Taukei'aho, Aidan Ross.
Reserves: Bradley Slater, Ryan Coxon, Ross Geldenhuys, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Dylan Nel, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Aaron Cruden, Etene Nanai-Seturo.
Highlanders: Mitch Hunt, Sam Gilbert, Rob Thompson, Patelesio Tomkinson, Jona Nareki, Josh Ioane, Aaron Smith, Marino Mikaele Tu'u, Dillon Hunt, Shannon Frizell, Josh Dickson, Pari Pari Parkinson, Siate Tokolahi, Ash Dixon, Ayden Johnstone.
Reserves: Liam Coltman, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Jeff Thwaites, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Kayne Hammington, Teihorangi Walden, Vilimoni Koroi.