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Preview: Chiefs v Bulls

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Sportal.co.nz     24 May 2012     Getty Images

VENUE & TIME: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton, Friday May 25 @ 1935

HEAD TO HEAD: Played 17; Chiefs 8, Northern Transvaal / Bulls 8, drawn 1.

LAST TIME: April 30, 2011 (Pretoria) - Bulls 43-27 Chiefs.

WALKING WOUNDED:
In a fairly dramatic pack overhaul, Dave Rennie has replaced his entire Brisbane starting front row and includes, for the first time since round one, his original props as Ben Afeaki makes a return. His biggest worry is probably at centre, since Richard Kahui dislocated a shoulder and is out until after the June tests at best. The Bulls have retained the 22 from Dunedin, with the solitary change being a swap at lock that sees Wilhelm Steenkamp start and Juandre Kruger get the bench seat.

FORM:
Chiefs:
Round 9: beat Sharks 18-12 (a)
Round 10: beat Hurricanes 33-14 (h)
Round 11: beat Lions 34-21 (h)
Round 12: lost to Reds 27-42 (a)
Round 13: bye

Bulls:
Round 9: beat Brumbies 36-34 (h)
Round 10: bye
Round 11: beat Rebels 41-35 (a)
Round 12: beat Waratahs 27-24 (a)
Round 13: lost to Highlanders 11-16 (a)

The Chiefs may have had their nine-match winning streak halted a couple of weeks ago, but they have lost no ground to the chasing New Zealand teams in that time as the other four local sides all went 1-1. With five matches to go, the Chiefs probably need to win two to secure a playoff berth while four would almost certainly ensure a top-two placing and a week off. The big worry may well be the attacking power, as the Brisbane game plan suffered a severe dislocation at the same moment as Richard Kahui's shoulder. But for most of the season the Chiefs have found a way to get things done - they have taken at least one point from every round - and there's no reason to believe that they will fall in a heap after one injury, even if it has removed a key player.

The Bulls also suffered a setback in their most recent match, but this one was inflicted solely on the scoreboard. Although the Highlanders battled to get away until late in the piece, they eventually did and not even a much more aggressive approach could get the Bulls over the line. The Bulls, like the Chiefs, have taken points from every round but that defeat cost them the lead in the South African conference and their previous position atop the ladder. When they fire the Bulls are a menacing outfit but there have been times on this tour when they have been content to chug along rather than really go for it. That 'sit back and wait for mistakes' approach may not be the thing the Chiefs fear most, but whether the Bulls divert from tried and true methods remains to be seen.

WHO'S HOT:
Chiefs flanker Liam Messam, who has been in excellent form through the year, takes over as the team's most-capped player this week but will only care about that afterwards. His confrontational style is well suited to playing a physical outfit such as the Bulls, and his performance will have a large bearing on the outcome. Andrew Horrell has been outstanding in recent weeks and some of his play has a real touch of class about it, particularly his clean handling in back moves. For a bloke who does not play fullback much, he's making a good job of it. No doubt Sonny Bill Williams will have been discussed by the Bulls midfield, but if he continues in the sort of form he showed in the early going against the Reds they'll have their hands full. His ability to do damage with ball in hand will be one of the key factors.

The Bulls lineout has long been a stable part of their game and this year, even in the absence of Victor Matfield, it remains one. Much of that is due to Flip van der Merwe, whose ability to collect his own throws and disrupt opposition ball is impressive, while he also does his share around the pitch. Pierre Spies has long been considered an impressive athlete, but there were many times in the past when he had little influence on matches. This year he has been far more involved - and a lot closer to the trenches - using his strength and explosive speed to far greater effect. The Chiefs will need to be wary of kicking ball to Zane Kirchner, as he is sure-handed and aggressive in outlook. So far he may not have ripped teams up but he always has a look, and anyone who is careless on the chase may pay. Kirchner is also a good defender, so fits the fullback positional requirements nicely.

WE THINK: It's never easy splitting two well-performed sides, especially after a bye, but the Chiefs shade this one because they use the ball better than the Bulls do. Some of the tries at Brisbane were outstanding team efforts - some of the defence, on the other hand, was not - but in a game like this the ability to score points is paramount. Home field also counts for a bit, so we'll give it to the Chiefs by five points.

TEAMS:

Chiefs: 1. Toby Smith, 2. Hika Elliot, 3. Ben Afeaki, 4. Craig Clarke (capt), 5. Brodie Retallick, 6. Liam Messam, 7. Tanerau Latimer, 8. Kane Thomson, 9. Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 10. Aaron Cruden, 11. Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 12. Sonny Bill Williams, 13. Jackson Willison, 14. Lelia Masaga, 15. Andrew Horrell.

Replacements: 16. Mahonri Schwalger, 17. Sona Taumalolo, 18. Michael Fitzgerald, 19. Sam Cane, 20. Brendon Leonard, 21 Robbie Robinson, 22. Maritino Nemani.

Bulls: 1. Dean Greyling, 2. Chiliboy Ralepelle, 3. Werner Kruger, 4. Flip van der Merwe, 5. Wilhelm Steenkamp, 6. Dewald Potgieter, 7. CJ Stander, 8. Pierre Spies (capt), 9. Francois Hougaard, 10. Morne Steyn, 11. Bjorn Basson, 12. Wynand Olivier, 13. Johann Sadie, 14. Akona Ndungane, 15. Zane Kirchner.

Replacements: 16. Willie Wepener, 17. Rayno Gerber, 18. Juandre Kruger, 19. Arno Botha, 20. Jano Vermaak, 21. Louis Fouche, 22. JJ Engelbrecht.

REFEREE: Mark Lawrence (SA)