Judgment day for Mark Hammett's Hurricanes
Defining moments like this don't come around all that often in rugby.
The success or failure of the Hurricanes' season and that of coach Mark Hammett's four-year tenure more than likely hang on whether he can concoct an against-the-odds win over the Chiefs in Hamilton.
Win and an elusive place in Super Rugby's playoffs beckons, conceivably even a knockout match at Wellington's Westpac Stadium in a fortnight's time.
There are of course a multitude of mathematical possibilities that could play out in the following two weeks.
The Hurricanes could scrape into the top six without picking up another point, but that will not be their mindset at Waikato Stadium.
This is statement time for a side that built up admirable camaraderie and belief, but failed to match it with consistent big-match performances.
Under Hammett, the Hurricanes have entertained and disappointed in equal portions, hot one week, frigid the next.
But now they have a chance to stick it up their doubters and win back a wary fan base that had all but given up after a lack lustre start to the season.
The difficulty factor for the visitor's tonight cannot be understated.
Winning in Hamilton is a monumental task made all the harder by injuries to Conrad Smith, Andre Taylor, Victor Vito, Alapati Leiua, and Faifili Levave.
Waikato Stadium is a graveyard for hopeful tourists. The Chiefs mana has taken them to 21 wins and just four losses in front of their faithful fans over the past three seasons.
And the Hurricanes have not tasted success in Hamilton since 2007, a draw in 2011 the only blip in a steady stream of deflating losses.
Now is the time to dig deep.
Now is the time for young players like prop Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, man-of-the-moment lock Blade Thomson and loose forwards Ardie Savea and Brad Shields to show they can produce under real pressure.
Talent is one thing, but the true grit of senior Chiefs like Liam Messam and Tanerau Latimer is a hard-earned trait.
The home side's motivation will be the equal of anything the Hurricanes bring. Pride is not in short supply among coach Dave Rennie's troops.
Forget a run that's seen the Chiefs lose five of their last seven matches, they will not relinquish their Super Rugby crown without an almighty fight.
But unlike previous seasons there are cracks in Rennie's armour. A dysfunctional lineout, a muddled midfield, a merry-go-round at halfback and a vulnerability to counter attack are among on-going issues.
The Hurricanes will have pored over the tapes.
Hammett will have noted the Highlanders success at milking penalties at the ruck. He will have circled the long-range tries in Dunedin off turnover ball and will be keen to get the ball in the hands of wing Julian Savea as often as possible.
The Hurricanes will take confidence from a 45-8 win over the Chiefs at Westpac Stadium, but will be nervous about their own patched up midfield and the threat of the combination between halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow and wing Asaeli Tikoirotuma close to the ruck.
It shapes as a humdinger.
There are great match-ups across the park, but none more interesting than at first five-eighth where the two All Blacks No 10s go head-to-head.
Aaron Cruden, the Hurricanes past, versus Beauden Barrett, the man his employers are praying will sign up to be their future.
Find a way to win tonight and Barrett's flame will grow brighter still. Lose and he'll join his team-mates in a nervous week of watching and wishing their fate was not in other's hands.
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.
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.
The Dominion Post