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Melbourne - After two years dictating the terms of the Super Rugby playoffs from their Hamilton home, the Waikato Chiefs face the ultimate test of character in Canberra on Saturday against a Brumbies team desperate for payback.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie noted the importance of being postseason hosts in his team's run to back-to-back championships, and will experience it first hand at Canberra Stadium where the Brumbies have not lost in seven matches.
Neither team has reached the heights of 2013, when they faced off in a final of test match intensity, with the Chiefs reeling in a 10-point deficit in the last 15 minutes to leave their opponents heartbroken.
No title is at stake in Saturday's clash and the winner is unlikely to be much more than cannon fodder in the semi-finals against the form teams of the competition the following week.
That aside, the match is likely to be fierce, pitting the Chiefs' rapidly improved defence against a potent Brumbies backline.
Having shipped an avalanche of tries throughout the season, the Chiefs have suddenly become miserly.
Though hardly able to get their hands on the ball in Auckland last weekend, their heroic efforts on the last lines to deny the Blues a match-winning score secured their ticket to the playoffs and galvanised the entire the team.
“Definitely, if we defend well then things start to fall into place for us and that's definitely been the case over the last two weeks,” co-captain Aaron Cruden told New Zealand media before boarding a plane to Canberra.
The Chiefs were subject to a stinging 41-23 loss in their last journey to Canberra but All Blacks flyhalf Cruden sat out the match with a broken hand.
The head-to-head between Cruden and his Brumbies counterpart Matt Toomua may prove decisive, and both the All Blacks and Wallabies staff will watch the duel with interest.
The pair have been in top form, with the versatile Toomua, who played inside centre in Australia's series win over France, scoring a hat-trick of tries against Western Force last week.
The winner will face either the high-flying New South Wales Waratahs or the Canterbury Crusaders for a place in the final, depending on the result of Saturday's later playoff between the Sharks and the Otago Highlanders in Durban.
The sole South African team in the playoffs, Jake White's Sharks were beaten at home by the Highlanders in the regular season, but the New Zealanders appear to have run out of petrol and head into the match after consecutive thrashings by the Waratahs and Crusaders.
The Sharks may also be boosted by the availability of Springboks flyhalf Pat Lambie, scrumhalf Cobus Reinach and prop Tendai Mtawarira who have all shrugged off injuries.
Lambie was initially ruled out for the season when he sustained a bicep tear in March, but is now fully recovered and White saw no problem drafting him back into the side despite his lack of game-time.
“The one thing about Lambie is that he seems to have that knack of coming back in important games and putting in a big performance,” White told reporters this week.
The Highlanders have been bolstered by the return of co-captain and All Blacks fullback Ben Smith, who missed last week with a leg infection, but must tighten up after making a hash of their set piece against the Crusaders last week.
“You have to be at your absolute best when you play against the best teams in this competition and I'm not sure we've done that in the past two weeks,” Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph told New Zealand media.
“Any time we had a chance to build pressure we lost a lineout or had a bad scrum.” – Reuters