Defining battle looms large for the Hurricanes
A huge sigh of relief and an angry and final swing of the axe.
The Hurricanes and Chiefs struck contrasting, but equally nervous looking camps as the stage was set for their Super Rugby showdown in Hamilton tomorrow night.
In Wellington coach Mark Hammett watched nervously as hookers Dane Coles and Ash Dixon negotiated training at a freezing cold Rugby League Park in Newtown.
Coles' bruised calf didn't bother him during a one-and-a-half- hour training, while Dixon's dodgy shoulder passed muster without incident.
Hammett had earlier left all three of his hooking options off the teamsheet and by the time his other hobbled rake Motu Matu'u, out with a shoulder injury, limped to his car with his own troublesome calves covered in strapping tape, Hammett looked a little drained.
"We had three out at the start of the week, but he [Coles] got through and Ash will go on to the bench this week," he said.
"It's one of those things. We always thought we'd get one across the line. We have [prop] Reg Goodes who can cover that position as well. We didn't want to [go there] but we would have run with that if we'd had to."
Such a situation would have been a calamity for a side that has enough set piece kinks to iron out without losing Coles' steady throwing.
The Hurricanes are already marshalling a damaged squad with No 8 Victor Vito (calf) and Samoan test players, second five-eighth Alapati Leiua (ankle) joining captain Conrad Smith (broken thumb) and flanker Faifili Levave (ankle), ruled out of their final regular season match.
Leiua's season may be over, but Vito, Smith, who will see a specialist next week, and Levave would all be chances should the season extend into the playoffs.
The sight on the bench of little used midfielder Cardiff Vaega and loose forward Adam Hill, both spirited up from club rugby, will not fill fans with confidence.
But things are equally as tenuous in Hamilton where coach Dave Rennie has chopped five of the seven backs who started against the Highlanders last week.
A new-look midfield sees Charlie Ngatai return at second five-eighth alongside Tim-Nanai Williams with Fiji's Asaeli Tikoirotum and Tasman's James Lowe on the wings and Tawera Kerr-Barlow back at halfback.
It speaks volumes of the Chiefs' struggles this season, a team searching for elusive combinations and depowered without influential, but injured, openside Sam Cane and stop-start centre Robbie Fruean.
What hasn't changed is how desperate the defending champions will be to keep their slim title hopes afloat in front of their home crowd.
Lose and the threepeat is over, but oddly a loss would not necessarily end the Hurricanes' playoff hopes even for their bye in the final week.
Hence, Hammett and his players are doing their best to avoid the perilous emotional peaks that can push the adrenaline spike of knockout rugby over the edge.
"If we win it gives us an opportunity to go on in this competition, but a loss doesn't necessarily mean we are out either," Hammett said, when asked if he had thought about what could be the final match of his four-year coaching tenure.
It was a line repeated by his players. Processes, routines, focus and nailing their individual roles were the catch phrases.
Hammett has long preached the virtues of analysis, technique and preparation over emotion. It got his side past the Crusaders last week and his players will believe it can get them past the Chiefs.
"One of the big things is we need to plan around their structures," he said.
"They know our A game, we probably know their A game. It's the little subtleties that decide the games week in week out."
Hammett also knows the emotional triggers he's trying to suppress will take care of themselves as kickoff approaches.
The Dominion Post