Defence is key for wounded Chiefs - Rennie

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 17/05/2013

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Patched up or otherwise, Chiefs coach Dave Rennie is not concerned about his side's ability to score points against the Hurricanes in Wellington tonight.

Plugging the leaks in a defence that's been heading south is another matter though for a coach who believes defence, not attack, ultimately wins Super Rugby matches.

"Certainly we have some players who can score tries and score quickly," Rennie said on the eve of a weekend with the potential to condense the New Zealand Conference. "In the last three games we've been well on top early on and we've just sort of taken the foot off the throat and that's more of the concern for us.

"A lot of the defensive lapses have been down to individual tackling or individual errors as opposed to systems or anything else.

"A lot of guys in our group are defending outstandingly well . . . but I look back at the Stormers where we scored four tries and still lost. Ultimately the teams with the best defensive systems are toughest to bowl over."

So far this season, that description hasn't applied to the Hurricanes, who are conceding 27.4 points per match, but will be firmly in the playoff mix if they can knock over the Chiefs.

Only the Kings (42) and Rebels (41) have conceded more tries than the Hurricanes (33), but the scary thing for Rennie is his Chiefs (28) are next on the list.

In fact, over the past five weeks the defending champions have conceded an average of 27.8 points per match. And although the wins have kept coming, Rennie is now having to operate without his main attacking weapons - Tim Nanai Williams (groin) and Gareth Anscombe (foot) join Richard Kahui and Andrew Horrell in the casualty ward.

The Hurricanes are sure to have taken note.

Rennie doesn't make excuses, but changing combinations may well be at the root of the Chiefs' defensive lapses.

It would be understandable considering they are on to their eighth different midfield combination in Aki and Charlie Ngatai.

Change has been constant at No 8 and halfback too with Tawera Kerr-Barlow now forming another new relationship with Matt Vant Leven.

"We tend not to talk about it [our injuries] because our focus is on who we've got, not who we haven't got," Rennie said. "It's not an excuse for turning over pill or not reacting or kicking poorly and giving them counter-attack opportunities."

Which is where Rennie believes the Hurricanes are most potent, citing fullback Andre Taylor and wings Julian Savea and Alapati Leiua as key men.

Yet for all the concern about the Chiefs, the TAB has interestingly installed them as favourites.

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That's partly because the tight five of Pauliasi Manu, Hika Elliott, Ben Afeaki, Brodie Retallick and Craig Clarke looks experienced.

It's also because Rennie's men have intangible team spirit led by Clarke's calm demeanour and the passion of blindside Liam Messam.

But the heat is on. Openside Sam Cane (back) is the latest to fall over. Vant Leven goes from wider training group to starter, while recent Hawke's Bay call-up Dan Waenga is suddenly Aaron Cruden's back up.

Rennie is one injury away from some radical re-jigs and experimental combinations.

The Hurricanes will know it. They are without captain Conrad Smith, but generally more settled with one change from the team that beat the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

Coach Mark Hammett will urge his side to empty the tank with the bye to follow and to fire every attacking weapon they've got in the hope the Chiefs' defensive issues continue.

What: Hurricanes v Chiefs

Venue: Westpac Stadium, Wellington

Live: Sky Sport 1, 7.35pm

Referee: Lorens van der Merwe (SA)

TAB odds: Hurricanes $2.20, Chiefs $1.62

Hurricanes: Andre Taylor, Alapati Leiua, Reynold Lee-Lo, Tim Bateman, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara, Victor Vito (c), Jack Lam, Faifili Levave, Jason Eaton, Jeremy Thrush, Ben May, Ash Dixon, Ben Franks. Reserves: Reggie Goodes, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, James Broadhurst, Brad Shields, Chris Smylie, Tusi Pisi, James Marshall.

Chiefs: Robbie Robinson, Lelia Masaga, Charlie Ngatai, Bundee Aki, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Matt Vant Leven, Tanerau Latimer, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Craig Clarke (c), Ben Afeaki, Hika Elliot, Pauliasi Manu. Reserves: Mahonri Schwalger, Ben Tameifuna, Mike Fitzgerald, Nick Crosswell, August Pulu, Dan Waenga, Save Tokula.

- The Dominion Post

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