The Highlanders possess an intoxicating mix of flamboyance and fellowship, making them the most dangerous of qualifying final opponents, according to Chiefs Super Rugby skipper Liam Messam.
A fast-paced affair at Dunedin’s indoor venue is in store on Saturday when the fourth-placed Highlanders host the fifth-placed Chiefs.
Both teams need to win three successive games to snare the title but Messam isn’t looking past opponents who have beaten his team twice this year.
The 36-9 loss in Invercargill three weeks ago illustrated the Highlanders’ attacking potency, as they scored four unanswered tries, all to outside backs.
However, it was the first result in Hamilton in round four that has Messam just as wary.
The Highlanders somehow snatched a late win through two penalties to Marty Banks after the Chiefs dominated possession and territory.
“They’re a very smart team and they’ve also got a real good culture down there. It looks like they play for each other so it’s going to be a hell of game,” Messam told NZ Newswire.
While the Chiefs’ pack has been impressive in recent weeks, their back play has struggled for cohesion on the way to four losses in their past six games.
Messam says the southerners have benefited from the enormous influence of their two All Black Smiths – fullback Ben and halfback Aaron.
Their direction allows the rest of the backline to sparkle and provides ample opportunities for game-breaking wingers Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osborne.
“Their back three has an attacking mentality and Ben Smith leads the way there. Obviously, Aaron Smith directs the forwards around and they’re able to play a high-tempo game and take you end to end.
“If you’re not clinical with what you do, then they can really take you, like they did to us a couple of weeks ago.”
With Chiefs dynamo Augustine Pulu out for the season with a fractured forearm, the speedy Brad Weber is set to mark Aaron Smith. Fifth-choice uncapped halfback Kane Hammington will be called onto the bench.
Season statistics show the teams and players are evenly matched although the home side have the superior game-breaking runners, with Ben Smith and nine-try Naholo near the top of the line-break and defenders-beaten categories.
The Chiefs have conceded the second-fewest tries of any team behind the Brumbies but are the most-penalised side, with 12.8 conceded per game.
Messam has committed more offences than any player, with 21 penalties.