Last chance for Chiefs to turn season around
The frustration has steadily built in the Chiefs' camp in the latter part of the Super Rugby season as the defending champions have tumbled from top of the New Zealand Conference to the bottom.
Tonight they have one last chance at home to start an almost-too-late-but-not-quite rear-guard action to save their season.
It is their first game at Waikato Stadium in two months and the Chiefs desperately need the inspiration of their spiritual home if they are to stop the rot and extend their season beyond next week's final regular season match in Auckland against the Blues.
To do so they need to not only put an end to a three-match losing streak, which looks even worse when it is realised they have lost five of their last seven games, but they also have to do it in such style that they score at least four tries and pick up a bonus point.
Against a resurgent Highlanders in Dunedin last week they didn't play that badly, but again discipline and turnovers when hot on attack cost them - two problems that have been their Achilles heel this year, along with set-piece inconsistency and an inability to dominate the breakdown area as they did in 2012 and 2013.
"We created enough opportunities in that first half against the Highlanders to have a reasonably healthy lead so we've got to be clinical, we've got to be patient and if we don't score we can't get frustrated by that," Chiefs head coach and former Hurricanes assistant Dave Rennie said.
"We've just got to go back and keep doing it and [we've] got to do it for 80 minutes.
"That's the thing about these games, they're all tough and are not going to be won in the first five minutes, so we've got to show enough fight to stay in there and be there for the long haul."
That is going to be even more important against the Hurricanes tonight, who have bolstered their defence considerably this year under Scottish defensive coach Clark Laidlaw to go with their long established attacking flair.
Back on May 24 the Chiefs came off their second bye and were trounced 45-8 by the Canes in Wellington. It was embarrassing for the back-to-back champions and it hurt.
That means plenty of motivation to make amends tonight, but it will take more than a gee-up to turn that around and Rennie admits they learned some painful lessons at the Cake Tin.
"You can't afford to turn over pill against them and we did some things like kicking and having a poor kick-chase and they scored straight off the counter, so we've got to kick smart and chase well, we've got to force them to kick back to us or at least apply a bit of pressure to them.
"But we knew going in [to the first game] that they were very good at counter [attack], they're lethal off turnover pill, and they are a couple of areas where we got punished and we need to be better."
So don't look for a lot of dramatic changes in the way the Chiefs play the game, just a greater effort to do it better.
Whether that will be good enough against a Hurricanes team on a roll and sniffing an opportunity, but just as desperate for a bonus-point win as it is their last regular season game before they finish with a bye next week, has yet to be seen.
While the Hurricanes are having to do without their talented midfield duo of Alapati Leiua and Conrad Smith, Rennie sees strengths in their replacements which won't make the Chiefs' job much easier if they are to stop All Blacks wingers Julian Savea and Cory Jane getting the ball in space.
"Hadleigh Parkes has probably got a superior kicking game [to Leiua] and he's a big man, so he'll cart it up, and then you've got Tim Bateman who is very experienced and played an enormous amount at 12 for them in the past. So they've got a couple of guys there who have played a lot of footy.
"Certainly if it's wet having those guys in midfield gives them better kicking options," Rennie said.
More important, however, might be the quality of the Chiefs' possession and then how the umpteenth different backline configuration uses it.
AT A GLANCE
CHIEFS: Tom Marshall, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Tim Nanai-Williams, Charlie Ngatai, James Lowe, Aaron Cruden (c), Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Liam Squire, Tanerau Latimer, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Mike Fitzgerald, Ben Tameifuna, Mahonri Schwalger, Jamie Mackintosh. Reserves: Rhys Marshall, Pauliasi Manu, Nick Barrett, Matt Symons, Tevita Koloamatangi, Augustine Pulu, Gareth Anscombe, Bundee Aki.
HURRICANES: Matt Proctor, Cory Jane, Tim Bateman, Hadleigh Parkes, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Brad Shields, Ardie Savea, Jack Lam, Blade Thomson, Jeremy Thrush (c), Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Dane Coles, Ben Franks. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Chris Eves, Reggie Goodes, James Broadhurst, Adam Hill, Chris Smylie, Cardiff Vaega, James Marshall.
Referee: Nick Briant (NZ).
Kickoff: 7.35 tonight, Waikato Stadium.