Pacesetting Chiefs wary of Drua ahead of Hamilton clash

rugby20 April 2023 05:06| © Reuters
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Damian McKenzie © Gallo Images

The Chiefs have a chance to open up a gap at the top of the Super Rugby Pacific standings when they take on Fijian Drua this weekend with their two closest challengers enjoying a bye in round nine.

The Chiefs have made an excellent start to their bid for a first Super Rugby title since 2013 with seven wins out of seven so far this season but lead second-place Brumbies only on points difference.

The twice champions go into Friday's Hamilton clash buoyed by coach Clayton McMillan, originally a caretaker appointment while Warren Gatland led the British and Irish Lions, having this week signed a new deal through the 2026 season.

Damian McKenzie has been in brilliant form at flyhalf this year but McMillan has moved him to fullback with Bryn Gatland taking the prime playmaking role for the Chiefs' second meeting with the Fijians.

They edged the Drua by a single point in their inaugural meeting last season and McMillan is wary of the challenge they present, particularly in midfield where the Chiefs are without injured All Blacks Anton Lienert-Brown and Quinn Tupaea.

"The Fijian Drua have shown rapid improvement in their second season and have our full respect and attention," he said.

"We know they have the athletes and skills to hurt you, particularly through the middle of the park where their power and athleticism can bend defensive lines."

The reigning champions Crusaders have an even longer casualty list heading into their trip to Melbourne to play the Rebels in Friday's other game, but do welcome back All Blacks forwards Sam Whitelock and Cullen Grace from injury.

While a bonus-point win would see the Crusaders leapfrog the idle Hurricanes into third place in the standings, the much-improved Rebels are targeting a statement victory as they look to get back into the playoff race.

"We've got to turn up to this game and we've got to fire a shot," said prop Sam Talakai. "As well as defence, in attack it's just sticking to being fearless and trusting our skill and ability where we can."

The fifth-placed Blues, who dominated last year's regular season, will also be looking to make up ground on the top four when they host the New South Wales Waratahs on Saturday.

Beauden Barrett will play his 150th Super Rugby game at flyhalf against a Waratahs side desperate to end a 14-year Eden Park hoodoo to keep alive their hopes of postseason play.

The weakest teams from Australia and New Zealand this season face off in Perth in the final match of the weekend when Western Force host the Highlanders.