The Chiefs are chasing a home semi and final, reports Evan Pegden.
New Zealand Rugby Union released some Super Rugby statistics this week showing both the Chiefs and Crusaders leading various categories.
But none of it will count for much tonight unless the respective teams' forward packs fire in the tight.
As boring as it might sound when people would rather read about line breaks, offloads and running metres, the set-piece clash between the Chiefs and Crusaders at Waikato Stadium tonight is going to go a long way towards deciding how most other aspects fall into place in front of a capacity 25,000 crowd.
The Crusaders come to Hamilton back to full strength, oozing All Blacks and snorting and pawing the ground like the wounded beast they are, having lost 24-19 to the Chiefs first time around 17 weeks ago and now desperate to grab competition points to secure their place in the top-six playoffs after their last-ditch loss to the Hurricanes last weekend.
On the other hand, there are the home team, the Chiefs, sitting atop the Super Rugby points table, having already clinched the New Zealand Conference and on 62 points – four ahead of South African Conference leaders and second-place holders the Stormers.
They are now playing for home ground advantage for the semifinals and possibly the final.
Some of the stats released yesterday make for interesting reading, with the Chiefs averaging the most clean breaks per game (10.1) this season to top that category, while loosehead Sona Taumalolo is not only New Zealand's second-highest try-scorer with eight touchdowns, but easily leads all props in the running metres with 300 metres with ball in hand at an average of 3.7m per carry.
In the backs, Sonny Bill Williams has made 31 offloads this season – 10 more than any other player in the competition – and Aaron Cruden is second-highest points scorer in the competition with 198 points.
The Crusaders are third in clean line breaks, backs Robbie Fruean (18) and Zac Guildford (18) joint second in individual line breaks, and the visitors also have the most efficient scrum in the competition, winning 94 per cent of their own ball.
But none of that will mean much to either side if their respective front fives can't win the all-important battle up front, the battle to get the better ball from set-piece and the front-foot edge at the breakdowns that will determine speed of ruck ball and therefore space to attack and ability of the loose forwards to assert themselves.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie is not surprised by the aggressive talk out of the Crusaders' camp this week. After all, the Crusaders are backed up by an impressive record – with seven Super Rugby titles to the Chiefs' none and 13 wins to just five by the Chiefs in clashes between the two.
And the visitors were without talismanic All Blacks Richie McCaw and Dan Carter for that first clash in Napier.
"They are a proud group, there are a lot of All Blacks in that mix and they're obviously fired up from that last encounter," Rennie said.
"They've certainly been destroying a lot of teams in recent weeks and we're well aware of the challenge. Our boys got pretty excited by their efforts last time and deservedly so."
Both teams would appear to have moved into playoff mode already and a huge crowd tonight should bring out the best in them. That just might favour the Crusaders, who have much more experience of such big occasions but the Chiefs have shown so far that they've been able to overcome their inexperience in that area this season under the guidance of Rennie and his astute coaching team.
Rennie said he was not too upset the Crusaders would be at full strength with Carter, Kieran Read and Israel Dagg back from injuries for this game.
"You want to play teams at their best and if there was any ounce of complacency it would be gone once those names were read out. It just makes for a fantastic occasion and some real quality matchups."
Those matchups are all over the park but it will be the collective effort, spearheaded by that up front that will decide this.
The Chiefs believe they have prepared well, have their heads and bodies right and just need to execute on the playing field now in front of a raucous, supportive crowd.
"We know they'll be desperate and we know it's an opportunity for us to cement a top-two position and beyond that we look at trying to finish top.
"To get ourselves in that position will be crucial, especially if we can play well enough and win our semi we don't have to travel."
It is also a telling gauge of just where the respective teams are at heading into the pointy end of the season.
Chiefs: Robbie Robinson, Tim Nanai-Williams, Andrew Horrell, Sonny Bill Williams, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Alex Bradley, Sam Cane, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Craig Clarke (c), Ben Tameifuna, Mahonri Schwalger, Sona Taumalolo. Res: Hika Elliot, Toby Smith, Romana Graham, Tanerau Latimer, Brendon Leonard, Jackson Willison, Lelia Masaga.
Crusaders: Israel Dagg, Adam Whitelock, Robbie Fruean, Ryan Crotty, Zac Guildford, Dan Carter, Andy Ellis, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (c), George Whitelock, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Corey Flynn, Ben Franks. Res: Quentin MacDonald, Wyatt Crockett, Tom Donnelly, Matt Todd, Willi Heinz, Tom Taylor, Sean Maitland. Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia). Kickoff: 7.35 tonight, Waikato Stadium.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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