Crunch encounter against unbeaten Crusaders set to define Chiefs' Super Rugby chances
The Super Rugby playoffs are still two months away, but whether the Chiefs are a realistic chance of claiming the title will likely be defined by 80 humid minutes against the high-flying Crusaders in Fiji on Friday night.
The 11-0 Crusaders sit atop the New Zealand conference, on 50 points, and while the 9-1 Chiefs do have a game in hand, they are eight points back. If that deficit extends to double figures after the showdown in Suva, with four games to play it will be mighty tough for the Chiefs to claw their way back to finish as conference champs, which secures home comforts for a quarterfinal, and possibly beyond.
We've all seen how important home advantage, and lessening overseas travel, is, come the business end and winning this thing, and it's somewhat ironic then, that, what could well be the Chiefs' most vital game, will be played on neutral territory, after they again punted on the cash.
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So in a bizarre turn of events, FMG Stadium Waikato will instead play host to an NRL match between the Warriors and Dragons, while the Crusaders happily trade Hamilton and a parochial crowd for Island time and trotting out their own Fijian favourite in Seta Tamanivalu, who was on the other side of this fixture last year.
There's a bit of a whiff of the corresponding match too, not only that the high 20-degree temperature could well be met with rain again, but, as on that occasion, it was the Crusaders again topping the conference, with three rounds left. The Chiefs were able to sneak past them 23-13 that night, which means it's now four on the trot against this foe, and six of the last seven.
But for Chiefs coach Dave Rennie, that sort of psychological advantage counts for little in his eyes, and he knows how vital it is for his side to start over come the first whistle.
For the Chiefs, coming off a bye and seven straight games against overseas opposition has them fizzing for a long-awaited local matchup. They managed to put away the Highlanders, Blues and Hurricanes in the first three weeks of the season, and now it's key to front because it's derby time again.
"We've got a reasonably challenging run in, so have all the Kiwi sides, so it prepares you well for knockout footy," Rennie said.
"The competition is maybe not as even as we'd like, but the key is you've got beat the other Kiwi sides to get yourself in a good spot."
The Crusaders, largely non-fancied as potential conference toppers, have been extraordinary under new coach Scott Robertson, and while Rennie felt their usual brand of footy remained - "very strong up front, at set piece, prepared to play with a lot of width", it was maybe their mental fortitude which had been key.
"They've just been really clinical this year, it's probably been the major difference, and the ability to put the foot on the throat when they've got teams under pressure.
"They've probably won a couple of games that you thought they might have lost with five to go, so there's a hell of a lot of character within the group and a lot of belief, I'm sure that's been driven by Razor."
While the Crusaders' pack which was tremendous in dismantling the Hurricanes last weekend, don't expect the Chiefs to be manhandled so stoutly. However, the 'hosts' will certainly have to aim up. You can envisage Brodie Retallick thriving in this no-nonsense arm-wrestle, while Nathan Harris will be eager to make his mark in his first start post-injury, in an all-All Black front-row battle that should have even the lankiest wingers straining their neck for a peep.
Though the Chiefs' 38 tries scored this campaign pales in comparison to the Crusaders' 62, they did get some confidence out of their last-start 46-17 victory over the Reds in New Plymouth, having been rather careless in meandering to wins prior. But they know their options are going to be cut down here.
"The Crusaders are going to bring a hell of a lot more heat at set piece and a lot more line speed and so on," Rennie said. "So we've got a plan for that, it's being able to implement it, if we're good enough.
"It's a big step up... the intensity will be much higher, but we're looking forward to it."
AT A GLANCE
Super Rugby, Rd 13
Chiefs v Crusaders
ANZ Stadium, Suva
Chiefs: Damian McKenzie, Tim Nanai-Williams, Sam McNicol, Anton Lienert-Brown, James Lowe, Aaron Cruden (co-c), Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Michael Leitch, Sam Cane (co-c), Mitchell Brown, Brodie Retallick, Dominic Bird, Nepo Laulala, Nathan Harris, Kane Hames. Reserves: Hika Elliot, Siegfried Fisi'ihoi, Atu Moli, Taleni Seu, Liam Messam, Jonathan Taumateine, Stephen Donald, Shaun Stevenson.
Crusaders: David Havili, Seta Tamanivalu, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, George Bridge, Richard Mo'unga, Bryn Hall, Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd, Pete Samu, Sam Whitelock (c), Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody. Reserves: Ben Funnell, Wyatt Crockett, Michael Alaalatoa, Quinten Strange, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Mitchell Drummond, Mitchell Hunt, Manasa Mataele.
Referee: Mike Fraser