Forgotten man Kerr-Barlow out of shadows
Of the New Zealand halfbacks he's been the forgotten man this season.
While Piri Weepu, TJ Perenara and Aaron Smith captured attention for their variations in form, Tawera Kerr-Barlow was forced to sip soup with a broken jaw, losing five kilograms before a diet of mashed spuds and mince regained the weight.
The freak training ground injury - colliding with Richard Kahui's boot - was not what he needed after breaking through for tests against Scotland and Italy on last year's European tour. Watching others make their mark in your position is never pleasant viewing.
"I was upset at the start but after I got my X-ray I accepted I'd be out for six weeks and I tried to work on other aspects of my game," Kerr-Barlow said. "I was in a really good space before getting injured. Now it's about trying to pick up where I left off."
And make up for lost time.
Any doubts Kerr-Barlow had slipped out of the reckoning were cast aside when, after just one game back for the Chiefs, he was included as one of four contenders in the All Blacks' wider training group. Despite the endorsement he remains realistic about his prospects of taking on the French next month.
"You know you've got to work hard to get in. Every single franchise in New Zealand has got fantastic halfbacks now. Five or six years ago the stocks weren't as high," he said. "It's good to have the competition. Hopefully it brings out the best in us. It's a good thing for New Zealand rugby.
"It's better to be in there than not. Piri and Aaron did a great job last year so you're going to have to be pretty sublime to sneak in there. We all do our best. Everyone knows we want that spot."
In Friday's 17-12 win over the Hurricanes - the Chiefs' fourth in a row - Kerr-Barlow wasn't perfect, dropping a bomb in difficult conditions. Otherwise, though, he was at the centre of everything. His snipe and offload gifted Tanerau Latimer the match-winning try and it was no coincidence the Chiefs' forward pack produced one of their best performances this year.
Kerr-Barlow has been a missing link. With him back barking orders, marshalling defence around the fringes and giving Aaron Cruden crisp, reliable service, the defending champions are a different beast.
"I feel like it's coming back," he said. "There's still a few things that I'm disappointed with but my game is improving."
On the whole the Chiefs are still well short of their best but Wayne Smith will be glowing from their renewed defensive resolve. The character which carried them to last year's title finally returned. Bottom line - Dave Rennie's men keep finding ways to win.
"Expectations of people are they want us to win more convincingly," Rennie said. "That's a real shift from 18 months ago when there were no expectations. Obviously we've made an impression in that area. We want to win well and win convincingly but in difficult conditions against a bloody good side, we'll take that."
With Tim Nanai-Williams and Andrew Horrell still to return, the Chiefs remain one of the favoured contenders.
"We'd like to be a bit closer than what we are at the moment but we've got a few new combinations," Kerr-Barlow said. "Once Tim and a few of the boys come back hopefully we can pick it up."
Sunday Star Times