Chiefs must summon best to beat Crusaders
How do the Chiefs continue to lead Super Rugby after 14 rounds when they rank just 14th out of 15 teams for the amount of possession they have to play with?
So far it is because they have either made such good use of the ball they have had or have defended brilliantly.
Tonight against the Crusaders at Waikato Stadium in a match that will go a long way towards deciding the New Zealand Conference, the Chiefs will have to do both and must also cut down their penchant for giving up possession through their high error rate, whether it be through poor handling or decision making.
Chiefs assistant coach Wayne Smith, who has both coached the Crusaders and coached against them, says his team will have to play their best game of the season as a collective if they are to beat the Crusaders in Hamilton.
‘‘As a team we’ve got to really connect, play for each other, play for our people and put it all on the track – then hopefully we can get a result,’’ Smith said.
Last year the Chiefs managed to win two out of three encounters with the franchise that has won more Super Rugby titles than any other and all three of them could have gone either way.
‘‘The key thing with the Crusaders is that you never really get on top of them.
‘‘They are hugely resilient and have got some of the best players in the world in that team, who are tough as well as having star qualities,’’ he said.
The statistic that the Chiefs are second last in possession counts is remarkable considering their 9-3 win-loss record and place atop both the overall and conference points ladders with their second bye still to come next week.
Compare it also with the fact they are first in both points scored (355) and tries scored (37) and top a couple of other statistical categories in the breakdown area.
Smith puts much of it down to not treasuring starting possession that he believes is on a par with other teams.
The Chiefs’ defence has improved since it hit a rough patch through the losses to the Reds and Waratahs and then the wins over the Sharks and Rebels, conceding 16 tries in those four encounters.
Against the Force and Hurricanes since they have given up just two. Smith believes that is down to them not giving away the ball so easily in their last couple of outings.
‘‘Our defence has probably been going up since the Sharks and Rebels games, which were a bit of a low. We gave away a lot of ball in both games and they scored tries off the back of our possession, which we either kicked away or lost in contact.‘‘
There have been a lot of tries scored against us off our ball and it’s always hard to defend in those situations.
‘‘A lot of our defence has improved because our ball maintenance is improving, but also the steel is returning, I think.’’
The Chiefs have been using last year’s finals as a yardstick and believe their intensity levels are right back up there now.
‘‘You know that against a team like the Crusaders, they see turnover ball as their bonus and their chance to attack so we’ve got to be really clinical there.’’
While the Chiefs have lost more ball than they did on their way to the title last year, Smith points out they have ‘‘played more rugby’’ this year, having a crack from anywhere to create a lot more try scoring chances and score a lot more tries.
‘‘There is risk and reward, but we’re top try-scorers in the competition and our defence is coming up so that’s what you’ve got to do to win the championship – you’ve got to be good in both areas not just one.
‘‘We need more balance, because sometimes we’re the best defensive team in the competition and sometimes the best attacking team. Last year we were second and third in both and the only team that had that kind of consistency – it’s what won us the championship,’’ Smith said.
The Crusaders are sure to try and test the inconsistent Chiefs lineout and try and put pressure on at scrum time, although the loss of All Blacks tighthead prop Owen Franks to a hamstring injury certainly balances out the home team’s blow of losing their No 3 Ben Afeaki.
Both teams will try and smother the other with their defence and the winner of that battle is likely to be the one with the edge in the set-pieces. After that it will be who best takes their scoring chances – another area where the Chiefs have been inconsistent this season.
Chiefs: Robbie Robinson, Patrick Osborne, Charlie Ngatai, Bundee Aki, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Matt vant Leven, Tanerau Latimer, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Craig Clarke (c), Ben Tameifuna, Hika Elliot, Pauliasi Manu. Res: Mahonri Schwalger, Toby Smith, Mike Fitzgerald, Sam Cane, August Pulu, Dan Waenga, Lelia Masaga.
Crusaders: Israel Dagg, Tom Marshall, Ryan Crotty, Tom Taylor, Zac Guildford, Dan Carter, Andy Ellis, Kieran Read (c), Matt Todd, George Whitelock, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Nepo Laulala, Codie Taylor, Wyatt Crockett. Res: Ben Funnell/Laurence Corlett, Joe Moody, Dominic Bird, Luke Whitelock, Willi Heinz, Robbie Fruean, Telusa Veianu.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia). Kickoff: 7.35 tonight, Waikato Stadium.