Chiefs look good for the sprint to the finish
The run home is what matters in super rugby, and the Chiefs, just as they did last year, are starting to sprint.
There wasn't much wrong with the way the Hurricanes played in Hamilton.
Two Canes in particular, Beauden Barrett and Jeremy Thrush, returned from being in the All Black camp with the confidence that elevates a player from good to very good.
Barrett has an avid following in Taranaki that ranges from grizzled old guys who played footy with his father, Kevin, a rugged lock, to young girls, who admire the fact Beaudy, which is the only way you ever hear him referred to in New Plymouth, is not only good looking but also gives every impression of being laid back and good natured.
Those of us not in either group will just note that he's always had an uncanny ability to slip tackles, and, since being the man who scored the All Blacks own try from the end of the world in Christchurch, seems more willing to use that ability than ever before.
Thrush, on the other hand, is the sort of player cursed with the adjective "solid", which rarely denotes someone about to break through to a new level.
But at Waikato Stadium there was almost a new-look Thrush on show, a man thirsting to smash the ball forward, to scrap at the breakdown, and to be in the front line on defence.
His obvious delight in being an All Black appears now to be accompanied by a surge in self belief, which could make the selection of locks for the end of year tour fascinating.
But if Barrett, Thrush, Julian Savea, and several other Canes, were firing, everything they had was calmly matched, flung back, and bettered, by a Chiefs team now settled into the role of setting the gold standard for New Zealand super teams.
Playing as if there had never been a June break for the All Blacks, the Chiefs were powerful from fullback to front row. In Southland colours Robbie Robinson could alternate, in the space of one game, from being stiletto sharp at fullback, to choosing the wrong option, or coughing up the ball. In the Chiefs this year he's dropped the negatives, while retaining the exciting pluses. Tawera Kerr-Barlow had some awkward moments earlier in the season, but has emerged from the All Blacks with a positive, dynamic attitude.
From the start of the year there's been little belief in the Chiefs at the TAB, in the media, and in the public outside their catchment area. I found the lack of respect for the Chiefs strange, but if they keep playing the way they did against the Canes, it may not be an issue by the end of the competition.
Sunday Star Times