Hurricanes urged to follow the leader vs Chiefs
Not for the first time a Mark Hammett-coached Hurricanes team finds its season hanging in the balance.
Another big match, another week of high hopes and optimism, but past deeds won't fill the faithful with much confidence ahead of tonight's match against the Chiefs at Westpac Stadium.
Put simply, the Hurricanes must win to keep their playoff hopes alive or watch another season of ‘what ifs?' slide into the history books.
Captain Conrad Smith isn't over-complicating the challenge he will lay down in the changing room for a match he anticipates will go to the wire.
"It's felt a bit like that [we are preparing for a final]," he said. "We've been keen to approach it like we do most weeks where there are areas we want to work on and things we've seen about the opposition we want to use to our advantage. That's been no different, but there's certainly been an edge. We realise there is a lot riding on this."
Smith has struck an animated figure this season. His body language during and after matches has been an illustration of just how passionately the evergreen centre wants to avoid another summer of regret.
"We just have to channel that [desperation] in the right way. It's good. It shows how much it means to the boys. I'd be disappointed if the guys looked like it didn't matter. We've put a lot of energy into this season and we realise it's all riding on the next four weeks and we can't slip up. That's tough, but you have to enjoy the challenge."
It's a tricky task. The Hurricanes cannot afford to let their emotions lead to the little mistakes Smith rightly says have defined New Zealand derby matches this season.
"If we took anything out of that last game [against the Highlanders] it's that there's nothing between the [Kiwi] sides. It's the teams that really want it and it comes down to the little things," he said.
"It's not even necessarily who deserves to win, it's just who makes the mistakes at the wrong times will pay for it. We have to make sure we're on the other end of that this time."
In the Hurricanes favour is the fact that the Chiefs will bring a compatible style. Both teams like to use the ball, and an open game tends to breath life into the Hurricanes attack.
The catch 22 for the home side is that the Chiefs are experts at punishing errors, particularly in the backs where fullback Tim Nanai-Williams has an uncanny knack of swooping on loose passes or knock-ons.
The Hurricanes would do well to revert to the simple plan they'd executed so well until their loss to the Highlanders. Attack the Chiefs' faulty lineout, chuck the ball to hard-running second five-eighth Alapati Leiua, and let Beauden Barrett do the rest.
The Chiefs can be unpredictable due to selection, but always bring an up-tempo attack, an in-your-face defence and a scrum that centres on big prop Ben Tameifuna. And with a Chiefs loose forward trio of Liam Messam, Tanerau Latimer and Sam Cane, the Hurricanes will need to be accurate at the breakdown.
Two years ago the Hurricanes finished their season with a bang, stealing a 28-25 win over the Chiefs in the last minute to cap a four-match winning run.
A similarly desperate effort will probably be needed tonight.
The Dominion Post