Chiefs in a final push for Super Rugby playoffs
Dave Rennie's Chiefs are the team that will not die.
All eyes will be on the two-time defending champions when they play the Blues at Eden Park for a place in the playoffs.
Lose and the Chiefs' hopes of a threepeat will end tonight but win and the team's never-say-die attitude will take on almost mythical proportions.
In many ways, the Chiefs have no right to be part of a frantic final scramble to make the top six, one that, in various degrees of probability, include nine teams.
This is a side which has won only seven games this season and just three of their past eight matches.
The Chiefs have, at times, looked a shadow of the decisive unit that won the previous two Super Rugby crowns, with a faulty scrum and lineout, a dysfunctional and ever-changing midfield and the usual run of injuries seemingly derailing their campaign.
This is a side that lost prop Ben Afeaki for the season after the opening skirmishes and was humiliated 41-23 by the Brumbies in Canberra and 45-8 by the Hurricanes in Wellington.
This is a squad that has played much of the season without openside Sam Cane, centres Robbie Fruean and Charlie Ngatai and first five-eighth Aaron Cruden.
Yet still, here the Chiefs are, firmly in the mix in the lunge for the tape.
Who would bet against them? They knocked over the Crusaders in Christchurch at the start of the season, concocted barely believable draws in Pretoria and Bloemfontein, thrashed the Blues in New Plymouth and crushed the Hurricanes in Hamilton.
A mid-season patch without Cruden seemed terminal but he has returned like a man possessed after the All Blacks June test series with England.
Lock Brodie Retallick, too, continues to go from strength to strength, and coaches Rennie, Tom Conventry and Wayne Smith remain as calm as ever.
The result is what promises to be a titanic final push against a Blues side which has been their equal when it comes to inconsistency.
Coach John Kirwan's men are unbeaten at fortress Eden Park and appear to have slowly but surely moved in a pleasing direction.
They have crucially lost loosehead prop Tony Woodcock (shoulder) and openside Luke Braid (surgery) for what is almost certainly their final match of the season regardless of whether they win.
But in Kirwan's favour is that his charges have nothing to lose. Their only hope of making the playoffs is to beat the Chiefs by 38 points or more and to that end they are likely to throw the ball around.
Centre Pita Ahki is off with the New Zealand sevens team but a fit-again Francis Saili paired in the midfield with Ma'a Nonu, possibly in his Blues farewell match, could provide a crucial edge for them.
That's something the Chiefs expertly denied the Hurricanes last weekend but if the Blues forward pack can play to its potential, their backs should see enough front-foot ball.
When they've been on song this year, the Blues have looked unstoppable. Two weeks ago they secured a four-try bonus point in 18 minutes against the Force and last week their pack confirmed their quality by arguably getting the better of the Crusaders in Christchurch.
How Kirwan would love to see his side put together a complete performance before he looks toward next season.
The Hurricanes will cheer them on from Wellington with a Blues win the first of two lifelines to the playoffs, one of the Brumbies or Force failing to gain a point in Canberra..
And in Christchurch, motivation could be the decisive factor for the Crusaders in their southern derby with the Highlanders.
The Crusaders have already qualified for the playoffs but arguably still have more to play for.
Only a cruel and highly unlikely twist of fate, a Chiefs win as well as a draw between the Brumbies and Force in Canberra tonight, will deny the Highlanders a plaoffs berth.
The Crusaders' desire to head off the Sharks for all-important home advantage in the playoffs should be the greater motivator for a side which seems to be coming right at the business end.
The Dominion Post