Super Rugby Team Talk: Chiefs hate Wellington, four Kiwi teams in playoffs?
OPINION: Got the mid-week blues? Don't worry, we've got you covered with everything you need to know from Super Rugby round eight.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: BEAUDEN BARRETT
It wasn't so much Beauden Barrett's brace against the Rebels, more the way he challenged the line that grabbed interest. Barrett, like most first five-eighths, are at their best when they pose a threat to inside defenders. Barrett's pace is a huge asset. When he takes a gap nine times out of 10 he goes through.
In the lead up to Victor Vito's try, he blitzed four defenders before offloading. It was a welcome sight. Outside TJ Perenara, who has found form, Barrett varied his play nicely with cross kicks to the corner in easily his best display of the year. Aaron Cruden hasn't got All Blacks No 10 jersey locked up just yet.
* Super Rugby Power Rankings - Week 8
* Robertson keen on Crusaders coach job
* Highlanders face longer wait on Naholo
* Off the building site and into Chiefs pack
* Ngatai, Bird a chance to play for Chiefs
* McKenzie hopes for callup to Crusaders
* Plumtree not leaving Hurricanes - Boyd
In the news: Depending on who you believe, John Plumtree could be the front-runner to replace Jamie Joseph at the helm next year. Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd says his assistant is going nowhere; Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark confirmed he is keen to lure Plumtree south next year. Former Canterbury coach Rob Penny is the latest to rule himself out of the running - and despite Stuart Lancaster's best intentions it is hard to see New Zealand Rugby rubber stamping a foreign appointment. If Plumtree has designs on being a Super Rugby head coach in this country this may be his best chance. Interesting to see how the forwards guru approaches the attraction in his services from here. Plum isn't one to blush. But he's sure to be flattered.
The low down: Here comes the cavalry. Co-captain Ben Smith (concussion) and flanker Elliot Dixon (head gash) should return from injury for the clash with the Sharks in Dunedin following the bye this week. All Blacks wing Waisake Naholo was also due back from his fractured leg but is now expected to be out for at least another fortnight.
Injury ward: Ben Smith, Elliot Dixon, Brendon Edmonds, Tei Walden, Waisake Naholo, Richard Buckman
In the news: If families in Melbourne want a new alternative to entertain the kids they should head along to the AAMI Park sandpit. The state of the pitch there is, frankly, a complete disgrace. Certainly not fit for purpose for professional rugby. The surface might be fine for league and AFL, but when it comes to packing down a scrum the disease-ridden grass can't hack long sprigs. Ask Julian Savea how he felt after being tripped up by big divots when the Rebels kicked in behind and scored their first try. It's an eyesore, a player welfare concern and a blight on the game. Wait until England arrive for a test against the Wallabies in June. There'll be no shortage of scrums - and plenty of sandpits.
The low down: Now we find out where the Hurricanes are really at. The match of the round sees the Hurricanes welcome the Chiefs to the Cake Tin. The Canes appear to be lifting through the gears, but haven't faced anyone of the Chiefs' quality in their five-match unbeaten run. Selection decisions loom at centre with Matt Proctor and Willis Halaholo vying for the role.
Injury ward: Nehe Milner-Skudder, James Broadhurst, James Marshall, Blade Thomson, Callum Gibbins, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi
In the news: Singing the blues. Rene Ranger and Rieko Ioane have been two of their best backs this year. Both will be out of action after the next match against the Rebels. Ranger is gone for the season with an ACL injury; star wing Ioane will turn out once more after the bye before rejoining the sevens team in the quest for the Rio Olympics. You could forgive Tana Umaga for thinking the rugby gods are against him. His backline has already been problematic - and the reluctance of Ihaia West to take on the line is a growing concern. Now Umaga has lost his two best attacking weapons this season. Thankfully, Patrick Tuipulotu has signed on for another four years.
The low down: After the unconvincing win over the Sharks, Umaga suggested he may give his players a few days off during the bye. Skipper James Parsons chuckled - and the Blues will train Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week. They also assembled on Monday. Hardly a light week. With a trip to Africa on the horizon the Blues must lift above losing Ranger, Ioane and openside Blake Gibson. Any loss at this stage could further dent their slim playoff hopes.
Injury ward: Rene Ranger, Blake Gibson, Nic Mayhew, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ben Lam, Afa Fa'atau, TJ Faiane
In the news: Putting their feet up for a week did nothing to change the Chiefs dominance. Dave Rennie's men still sit five points clear of the second-placed Stormers; two ahead of the Crusaders in the New Zealand conference. Former Highlanders prop Kane Hames comes into the frame after returning from injury for Hamilton Marist. That's significant, given the Chiefs lost front-rowers Pauliasi Manu and Nepo Laulala for the season. Hames has battled patellar tendonitis in both knees but not long ago was in the All Blacks sights after some strong outings and scrummaging work for the Highlanders. He's a more-than-handy addition.
The low down: Maybe it's that brisk southerly that rips through any winter coat. Maybe the best coffee in New Zealand gets them a bit skittish. Or the stylish swag is a bit unnerving. Whatever the case, the Chiefs don't like Wellington. Losing nine of their past 10 games there is proof of that. Their last win in the capital came in 2013 but you have to go back to 2001 to find another successful venture. Form points to that changing but the omens are in the Hurricanes favour this week.
Injury ward: Charlie Ngatai, Dominic Bird, Nepo Laulala, Mitchell Karpik, Augustine Pulu, Pauliasi Manu
In the news: Two tries, 16 carries, 118m, three clean breaks and seven defenders beaten. Sure the Jaguares are fast fading, but this was some comeback from Israel Dagg. After just one club match in the past six months, Dagg immediately served a reminder of his class. Most pleasing for national selectors is the pace Dagg showed. It's been some time since we've seen him hit a gap, leave defenders clutching, and back himself to skin a man on the outside. A joy to watch. Good signs for the Crusaders and, indeed, All Blacks if Dagg can sustain this level of performance. Did we mention there is a hole on the right wing?
The low down: Not so much a sleeping giant as a chugging freight train. The Crusaders are reinforcing the old adage that a powerful pack is imperative for success. All Blacks are doing what they do, but Scott Barrett continues to gain prominence in the second-row, as does Jordan Taufua at blindside. Impressive bonus point win over the Jaguares but this week's trip to Canberra is a totally different beast. Andy Ellis would do well to keep his cool after being extremely fortunate to escape a yellow card for throwing a punch. It shouldn't matter whether it connected or not. The intention was clear.
Injury ward: Robbie Fruean
It's time to consider the very real outcome that four Kiwi teams make the playoffs. That would see just one Australian side - the Brumbies - squeak through. Five Australasian teams progress to the top eight finals format. As it stands the Rebels, Australia's second-placed team, are six points off the Highlanders, New Zealand's fourth. Team Talk can't see that changing. While it seems a true reflection of the quality of rugby being played, it would also be a slap in the face for the depth of Australian rugby.
In the battle of the two premier African teams the Lions pulled off an upset over the Stormers. With one moment of poor defence on Rieko Ioane the Sharks threw away their 10-match hold over the Blues. And the Bulls ran rampant at home against the Reds. What did we learn? The Lions are the most improved team in Super Rugby.
A 92-17 loss to the Cheetahs - yes, the Cheetahs - did nothing positive for Japanese rugby. In fact, it evoked memories of being humiliated by the All Blacks at the 1995 World Cup. We all get the Asian market is lucrative, but the Sunwolves can't go on like this. It's embarrassing.
KIWI FORM XV
15 Israel Dagg, Crusaders
14 Rieko Ioane, Blues (2)
13 Kieron Fonotia, Crusaders
12 Ryan Crotty, Crusaders
11 Julian Savea, Hurricanes (2)
10 Beauden Barrett, Hurricanes (2)
9 TJ Perenara, Hurricanes (2)
8 Steven Luatua, Blues
7 Ardie Savea, Hurricanes (5)
6 Jordan Taufua, Crusaders
5 Michael Fatialofa, Hurricanes (2)
4 Scott Barrett, Crusaders (3)
3 Charlie Faumuina, Blues (3)
2 Dane Coles, Hurricanes (3)
1 Reggie Goodes, Hurricanes (2)
(Previous Kiwi Form XV appearances in brackets)