Super Rugby first term report card: Assessing New Zealand's five franchises
OPINION: Who's turned your head more? Those comeback Crusaders, the adaptable, resilient Chiefs, or even the explosive Hurricanes who are the only one of this trio to have dropped a game?
Super Rugby has completed its first term of four rounds, so it's time to assess the five New Zealand franchises and grade their efforts. And, while we're at it, assess who's throwing their hands up for selection to face the British and Irish Lions later in the year.
The Chiefs top the Kiwi conference, and overall standings, with 19 points from a possible 20, but were those signs of a chink or two in the armour last weekend at the Melbourne Rebels? The Crusaders have 16 points from four victories, and would be second (not fifth) on the overall standings in a fairer world.
The Canes have 15 points, with that defeat to the Chiefs in Hamilton the only blot on their copybook, but have a competition-leading 33 tries, while the Blues and Highlanders have both made 1-3 starts and fallen well off the early pace.
But all is not lost, mainly because the Australian conference is so weak and five trans-Tasman playoff spots are up for grabs. Right now, believe it or not, Tana Umaga's men would actually sneak into the eighth and final post-season position. Go figure.
CHIEFS 4-0, 19pts. For: 118pts. Against: 73. Grade (out of 10): 9
Damian McKenzie is utility gold. Photo: Getty Images
Assessment: Hard to fault the effort thus far in the final campaign before this Chiefs group is dismantled. They have won all three Kiwi derbies, and victories in Dunedin (with almost no ball) and in Hamilton over the Hurricanes were tactical masterpieces. No one plays harder or smarter than these guys. They have Aaron Cruden on top of his game, two locks on fire, and plenty of depth in key positions. Sure, Melbourne was a hard watch, but judicious lineup changes and maybe the boredom factor contributed. Even a sloppy effort was too much for the Rebs to handle. Well placed with a run of South African opponents looming after the bye.
All Blacks watch: Cruden firming as Beauden Barrett's backup for the Lions. Dom 'Big' Bird back in the second-row reckoning and Damian McKenzie still as elusive as ever, and utility gold. Anton Lienert-Brown doing nothing wrong in midfield either. Tawera Kerr-Barlow as good as anyone around at No 9, but imminent departure may hurt. Veteran Liam Messam also reminding us of his enduring quality.
CRUSADERS 4-0, 16pts. For: 102pts. Against: 84. Grade: 8
Scott Barrett has taken over from Luke Romano. Photo: Getty Images
Assessment: The Kings of Clutch, Comeback Kids, call them what you will, there's no doubt a belief and character building under first-year coach Scott Robertson that bodes well for this accomplished franchise. Have overcome a rash of backline injuries (Richie Mo'unga, Izzy Dagg, Seta Tamanivalu, Digby Ioane, Jack Goodue) to post four straight wins. That two of them have been against Aussie opponents is worth factoring in, as is that they've won their last three games by hauling in significant deficits. A long way from the level they need to get to, but with big names absent (including ABs skipper Kieran Read and loosie Matt Todd) the pragmatism is admirable. A killer pack and quality bench looks set to give them the foundation to launch something positive, even if that backline still lacks punch.
All Blacks watch: Lock Scott Barrett looks to have leapt past Luke Romano in the pecking order and is thriving in his role starting alongside skipper Sam Whitelock. That's vital in a deep position. The established ABs are all doing their thing, and Dagg hinted at a continuation of his 2016 form before the knee problem. Tamanivalu handy on the wing too before his injury.
HURRICANES 3-1, 15pts. For: 213pts. Against: 64. Grade: 8
Ardie Savea looks a million dollars. Photo: Getty Images
Assessment: Yes, the champs hit the banana skin in Hamilton when they were outplayed by those devious Chiefs in the wet. But otherwise, you couldn't have asked for more as they demolished the Sunwolves and Rebels, and then put away a competitive Highlanders side with ease last weekend. Even with Nehe Milner-Skudder's injury, this is the most potent backline around, and if the forwards can dish up front-foot ball they're capable of feasting on tries. They have 33 already. It's early days but a third straight final appearance looks a distinct possibility for a group building nicely.
All Blacks watch: Here's two names from the bolter category: Jordie Barrett and Ngani Laumape. Barrett the Younger was brilliant against the Highlanders at fullback and continues to showcase a skillset destined for the big stage. Utility value doesn't hurt either. And Laumape might not be your prototype All Black No 12, but with five tries, and a competition-best clean breaks (12) and defenders beaten (22), he is in some form. Ardie Savea continues to look a million dollars too and TJ Perenara warming to his scrap with Aaron Smith for the top halfback spot.
HIGHLANDERS 1-3, 5pts. For: 73pts. Against: 107. Grade: 3
Aaron Smith is re-discovering his golden form. Photo: Photosport.nz
Assessment: Tough, tough draw with four straight Kiwi derbies to open up with, and then injuries to Ben Smith, Liam Squire, Lima Sopoaga, Waisake Naholo, Pat Osborne, Jason Emery and James Lentjes, among others, hasn't helped. Still, this has been a shoddy opening from a franchise capable of better. Could and should have won the first two games at home against the Chiefs and Crusaders, was lucky to get over the line against a woeful Blues side in Auckland, and then faded at the end of a spirited 60-minute effort against the Canes. Not a million miles off, and will appreciate some non-Kiwi opposition looming (eight of their next nine), but improvements needed fast. Margin for error now minimal.
All Blacks watch: The troubled Aaron Smith has been making positive strides, though still short of the mark of others. Sopoaga would have had his sights on the backup No 10 berth, but has lost ground after a poor start and then injury. Elliot Dixon still short of his '16 form and Squire's positive start undone by injury. Malakai Fekitoa also improving before his Canes head knock. Work to do from all.
BLUES 1-3, 6pts. For: 118pts. Against 108. Grade: 2
George Moala has been a bright light on an otherwise dull Blues. Photo: Getty Images.
Assessment: Have to rank below Highlanders because their one win was against easybeat Rebels and lost to the southerners at home. But all hope is not lost. Positive signs in defeats at Chiefs (undone by Steven Luatua red card) and Crusaders (where they blew a 24-5 lead), and small adjustments could yield major changes in outcomes. Highlanders loss was a low point, but the finish in Hamilton and first 50 minutes in Christchurch show this group has firepower. Eighty-minute effort needed. Next two, at home to Bulls and Force, eminently winnable. Weak Aussie conference also keeps playoff hopes alive.
All Blacks watch: Rieko Ioane started with a hiss and a roar at centre but has gone quiet. George Moala and Augustine Pulu have been the bright spots in the backs and must be in the national calculations, while Luatua, Akira Ioane, Pat Tuipulotu and Ofa Tu'ungafasi are headed in the wrong direction. Time to turn things round.