Charlie Ngatai's season of frustration continues.
In a bid to find the right mix, the Chiefs midfield has changed constantly this year and those issues seem set to flow into the final-round sudden-death showdown with the Blues this week.
Ngatai is a highly valued member of the Chiefs - his decision-making under pressure and variable kicking options ease pressure on Aaron Cruden, while adding another level of composure to the backline. But after battling regular calf complaints, Ngatai picked up a shoulder injury in the 24-16 win over the Hurricanes on Friday night and appears set to be sidelined yet again.
"There may be another change there yet," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said of his midfield. "It's a bit of a blow because Charlie has a great skill set. He's got a very good kicking game."
Ngatai had scans yesterday to determine the damage but his expected absence could ensure Robbie Fruean's return at centre. Rennie may, alternatively, opt to pair Bundee Aki and Tim Nanai Williams, or recall Andrew Horrell.
Physicality in the carry and some ferocious tackling set the tone for the Chiefs' victory. They now need to repeat that backs-to-the-wall attitude in defence to end the Blues' unbeaten campaign at Eden Park - a daunting task given their one-from-seven away record this year.
"You are comfortable at your home ground. They have performed well there but at the end of the day Eden Park is the same size as our field in Hamilton," Rennie said. "It's all about attitude. We beat them at Eden Park last year."
Embracing the fear of not having the chance to contest a third successive title worked against the Canes. The Chiefs were desperate; able to translate that fear into courage with speed off the line and aggression around the fringes rattling the visitors into repeated mistakes.
The final margin flattered the Hurricanes, who beyond a minor miracle, signalled the end of Mark Hammett's underwhelming four-year reign with the all-too-familiar note of failing to rise to the occasion.
While pleased with the response after a lacklustre loss to the Highlanders, Rennie realises his side remains in a tenuous position this week. The equation is simple: win and they should sneak into the top six but a seventh defeat will end their title defence.
- Sunday Star Times
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