With a healthy 10 point gap separating 1st and 2nd place in the New Zealand Conference, a win for the Chiefs at home against the Crusaders this weekend will see them seal top spot with only one more round to go of the regular competition before the playoffs get underway later this month.
The accomplishment would cap a remarkable season for the Chiefs, who have won 12 out of their 14 games this season with their only defeats coming against the Highlanders in the opening game and against the Reds back in Round 12. There has been naturally plenty of flair in their performances with Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams pulling the strings in midfield, but their top try scorer has been a prop in Perpignan-bound Sona Taumalolo with 8 so far.
The boost in the Chiefs form though has come from some old heads putting up their hands again and the performances of new youngsters within the squad. Liam Messam celebrated his return to the All Blacks side in the 3rd Test against Ireland with a brilliant innings against the Highlanders last weekend, racking up 27 tackles in a huge defensive effort from the whole side. Alongside him in that 3rd Test was youngster Sam Cane, who at 20 is already being touted as a mainstay of the New Zealand side going forward and has been excellent this year. Finally, Taumalolo might have 8 tries but Fijian Asalei Tikoirotuma is close behind him with 7 this campaign. After all, somebody has got to finish off the magic created by Cruden and SBW on the wing.
Taking on the Crusaders judging on recent history would normally mean the current Super Rugby leaders would be heavy underdogs, but the Saders have endured an inconsistent season due to a combination of injuries and stuttering form. The latest twist in their season came at home last weekend against the Hurricanes, losing out to a Beauden Barrett penalty and missing the chance to snatch victory on the hooter when Tyler Bleyendaal’s kick dropped short for a one point loss.
The defeat was a major setback in their mission to chase down the Chiefs and with the 10 point gap between the two sides possibly stretching to 14 this weekend, their focus now must be on securing one of the Wildcard spots where they currently hold 5th spot. However, given that the Hurricanes, Reds and Sharks are all just three points behind them and waiting for them to slip up, a win this weekend is vital. Todd Blackadder hopes to welcome back Israel Dagg and Kieran Read but Dan Carter remains a doubt as he continues to recover from his hamstring strain that ruled him out of the 3rd Test. In such an important clash, his guidance and calmness under pressure will be sorely missed.
Entering Super Rugby’s latter stages without the Crusaders would feel odd given their dominance of this competition, but the Chiefs are the side to beat and they are difficult to break down having only conceded 24 tries this season – the second lowest number in the competition. It all means that the game in Hamilton is essential viewing this weekend.
by Ben Coles