OPINION: Almost every game for New Zealand teams in Super Rugby now feels like a knockout match.
So it was hardly a surprise neither Hurricanes or the Crusaders looked fluent last night in Wellington.
The Canes got the jump for two main reasons.
One was that Beauden Barrett and Julian Savea were red-hot from the first whistle. Barrett now plays with a freedom and fearlessness that can turn what should be bread-and-butter defence into caviar attack. Savea isn't content to show his fearsome power only when he's fed the ball. For such a big man he's prepared to work for the money, and one sensational chase of his kick hugely embarrassed the Crusaders' defenders, who looked sluggish and casual by comparison.
The other was that what appeared to be a sound Crusaders' game plan - to try to make ground near to the breakdowns - was soon forgotten, replaced by largely aimless kicking. Kicking to the Canes back three is like waving fillet steak in front of a Doberman, and not expecting it to chase you.
The Crusaders improved in the second 40, but not enough. There wasn't the penetration out wide, and this Canes side has a backbone not every team wearing the jersey has shown over the years. There was something inevitable in that the try to seal the game came, as Blade Thomson's first try did, from defensive confusion under pressure from the Crusaders.
About the only good news for the Crusaders, to be honest, was that Keiran Read and Dan Career look to have got through the match safely. They'll be badly needed over the next fortnight.
Class will usually out in sport, and if you want proof it was provided in Friday night's game in Dunedin.
The fact the Chiefs now cling to the coat-tails of the other teams after losing to the Highlanders is the big picture from the match.
But the fine detail is a reminder of the brilliant skills (without being jingoistic, the best in world rugby) a group of our All Blacks showed.
You could look to Aaron Cruden playing with the assurance he had before his broken wrist.
The try scored by Dwayne Sweeney showed everything that, quite rightly, makes Cruden a favoured son with the national selectors.
It's one thing to spot the open field behind Patrick Osborne on the Highlanders' left flank. It's another to, as Cruden did, not only kick to exactly the right place, but to strike the ball so that the kick curves back, away from the touchline.
Having a footballer as gifted as Cruden in such a pivotal position means that while the odds are long on another title, the Chiefs should not be written off just yet.
If Sweeney's try was perfectly executed so, on a bigger, more sweeping scale, was the stunning movement that saw Ben Smith touch down.
For the purist there was the impeccable timing of their passes by Malakai Fekitoa and Richard Buckman, an echo through the ages of one of Otago's rugby legends Charlie Saxton, who believed the aim of the game was for 14 men to give the 15th man a metre's start.
Feelings Ben Smith may have preternatural skills may have strengthened when he had a kick charged down, and turned and grabbed the ball before it reached the deadball line. Quick reactions are one thing. This was spooky.
As with Cruden at the Chiefs, players like Ben and Aaron Smith and Fekitoa mean the Highlanders will always be dangerous. Next Sunday's clash with the high-riding Waratahs in Sydney should be memorable.
- Sunday Star Times
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