Chiefs face test to stay top
Sydney - Chiefs will have to overcome a losing run against the Reds this weekend if they are to preserve their lead at the top of Super Rugby.
The Reds, the 2011 winners, have won their last three encounters with the defending Super Rugby champions and travel to Hamilton on Saturday where they have won the last two meetings.
The Chiefs are leading the overall Super 15 standings on points differential after frontrunners Brumbies were held to a surprise draw at home last weekend by South African newcomers Southern Kings.
"They've got lots of names on the field and have a similar game plan," Chiefs wing Lelia Masaga said.
"The Reds were the underdogs at one time and now have been champions. The Reds have beaten us three times and we've struggled to maintain the performance that we need."
Reds' director of coaching Ewen McKenzie is looking at the game to gauge the season prospects of his team.
"We intend to defend that record having already enjoyed a couple of good wins the last two times we've travelled over there," McKenzie said.
"You benchmark yourself against the best side and they're the incumbents and they are performing well.
"These are the games you really find out about your character as a team, also your character as individuals."
Reds and Wallabies scrumhalf Will Genia rates the Chiefs an even better team this season, even as they attempt to defend their title without World Cup winner Sonny Bill Williams, who has switched back to Australia's National Rugby League.
"Our best chance is to keep the ball for long periods and starve them of possession but they are the kind of side when they do have the ball they like to throw it around so you can force mistakes," Genia said.
Fullback Jesse Mogg and flyhalf Matt Toomua are back and blindside flank Jordan Smiler will make his Super Rugby debut for the Brumbies against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday.
The Brumbies haven't beaten the Highlanders in New Zealand since 2009.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph has dropped halves Aaron Smith and Colin Slade for Japanese scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka and No.10 Hayden Parker among six changes to his winless team.
The Bulls have been bolstered by the return of experienced campaigners Akona Ndungane and Flip van der Merwe for their South African derby with the in-form Cheetahs in Pretoria on Saturday.
Ndungane has recovered from an eye socket injury and will start for the three-time champions, while Van der Merwe has recovered from an injured chest muscle.
"We feel that we left some points on the road, but now have a good stretch back home where we play ourselves back into those important play-off positions," coach Frans Ludeke said.
Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske has named an unchanged starting XV as his team chase a franchise record sixth consecutive win and their first-ever Super Rugby victory against the Bulls.
Gary van Aswegen replaces injured flyhalf Elton Jantjies for the Western Stormers derby with the Coastal Sharks in Cape Town on Saturday.
"We are under no illusions that it is a tough task. The Sharks are an incredibly good team. It's vital that we get our campaign back on course with a positive result," Stormers coach Allister Coetzee said.
The Sharks lead the South African conference and are coming off a 21-17 win over seven-time champions Canterbury Crusaders last week at home.
In the weekend's other games, Blues host the Hurricanes, the Melbourne Rebels take on the Southern Kings and Force have home advantage against the Crusaders, while the Waratahs have a bye.