Cruden pivotal to the balance of the Chiefs
To kick or run – that's the question still vexing many teams in Super Rugby as they strive to find the right balance under the game's current laws and their interpretations.
The fact the Chiefs seem to have hit on that balance very early in their campaign, making the right adjustments as they go, is reflected in their place at the top of not only the New Zealand Conference but the overall points table and Aaron Cruden is playing a pivotal role in ensuring that happens.
Cruden will run out for his eighth straight start in the Chiefs' No10 jersey tomorrow morning against the Sharks in Durban as the Chiefs seek a record seventh win on the trot.
The 23-year-old Manawatu All Black is going from strength to strength as a result of that consistent match play, helped by the outstanding play of the hard-working forward pack in front of him.
But he says it is no coincidence things have clicked into place in terms of attacking balance.
"It has been really important and that's something we really work hard at at training. It does differ from week to week, depending on the opposition that you are playing.
"You really do have to find the correct balance and I don't know if we've been perfect at that at times. There have been patches in games where we think we've been doing it well and there are other patches where we think we can do it a lot better."
Cruden said that continual striving for the perfect game and refusal to be satisfied with what they had done so far was the reason the players all turned up enthusiastic and determined to do better at training each week.
The young first five-eighth started the season nailing his goal kicks with metronomic precision and while he has continued in that vein – currently 82 per cent with a 37/45 strike rate – he has now added accuracy and length to his tactical kicking, which has been an enormous help to the Chiefs in getting much-needed field position and not trying to play too much rugby inside their own half.
It is all the result of hours and hours put in on the training field, often after the rest of the team have left it.
"When I first came onto the scene I considered myself more of a running first-five and I was probably a bit of a one-trick pony back then.
"But I've worked really hard at adding things to my game and the kicking game has definitely come along in the last few years.
"I've put a lot of work in with a lot of different people and it's just really satisfying to see the results coming out on the field," he said.
Cruden said all the Chiefs players were starting to grow an understanding of when to run and when to kick and to look for space in the back field behind the opposition to kick to during games.
The resulting field position in the last couple of games had brought plenty of points scoring opportunities – most of them nailed last week against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
Against the Sharks Cruden said they had to take another step in that direction in order to take the Durban crowd out of the game early and put the home side under pressure after a long flight back from New Zealand.
That means playing a quick-tempo game at the right end of the field to challenge the Sharks' fitness and freshness, the latter having not only flown back from New Zealand this week but also yet to have their first bye.
The Chiefs are shaping as one of the fittest teams going around and will look to take some advantage from coming back down from their high altitude base in Johannesburg to play the match at sea level.
But Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said they would not be drawn into playing a width game without getting the required go-forward close in to the forwards first and they had worked hard on that area this week in training in anticipation of an aggressive approach from the big, strong Sharks pack.
Rennie and his coaching team have made three changes to their starting XV for tomorrow with the hooker rotation continuing and Mahonri Schwalger in this time ahead of Hika Elliot to match the physicality and scrummaging power of Bismarck du Plessis, Sam Cane replacing Tanerau Latimer at openside flanker and Asaeli Tikoirotuma in on the left wing in place of Tim Nanai-Williams. Both Latimer and Nanai-Williams are carrying niggling injuries.
The Sharks have not only brought du Plessis back from injury, but made two changes to their loose forward mix with Jacque Botes and Willem Alberts replacing Marcell Coetzee and Jean Deysel respectively.
AT A GLANCE
Sharks: Riaan Viljoen, Louis Ludik, JP Pietersen, Tim Whitehead, Lwazi Mvovo, Patrick Lambie, Charl McLeod, Keegan Daniel, Willem Alberts, Jacques Botes, Anton Bresler, Steven Sykes, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Dale Chadwick. Res: Craig Burden, Wiehahn Herbst, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jean Deysel, Marcell Coetzee, Frederic Michalak, Meyer Bosman.
Chiefs: Andrew Horrell, Lelia Masaga, Richard Kahui, Sonny Bill Williams, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Alex Bradley, Sam Cane, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Craig Clarke, Ben Tameifuna, Mahonri Schwalger, Arizona Taumalolo. Res: Hika Elliott, Josh Hohneck, Michael Fitzgerald, Tanerau Latimer, Augustine Pulu, Jackson Willison, Robbie Robinson. Referee: Garratt Williamson (NZ). Kickoff: 3.05am tomorrow (NZ time).
SHARKS PREPARE TO LIFT AGAINST CHIEFS
The Sharks may have eased some of the pressure they are under by beating the Blues in Auckland last weekend, but their influential prop, Jannie du Plessis, says it will be all back on again when they play the Chiefs tomorrow morning (NZ time).
There were plenty of expectations on the Sharks this year, but their early season form failed to live up to the hype.
Du Plessis believes just two teams in the competition are not currently under pressure - the Chiefs and Stormers.
The Sharks' win over the Blues took them to four wins and four losses for the campaign and their army of fans will be looking for another victory at their Kings Park ground in Durban.
"All of the teams except the Chiefs and the Stormers are under pressure," du Plessis said.
"All of the teams start the season with the same goal - that they want to win the competition - and the pressure never really eases.
"But the win over the Blues has made the pressure easier on us now, to come home after a win makes a big difference.
"However, in the buildup to the game against the Chiefs we're under pressure again and the team that handles the pressure the best will come out on top at the end of the season."
The 30-test front-rower says the Sharks could still catch the Stormers, who were unbeaten before last weekend's loss to the Crusaders.
"I definitely think we can [finish above them], we've still got to play them at Kings Park and they've got a few tough games ahead of them," he said.
"They have also played a lot of their games at home while we've played most of our games away.
"You never know what's going to happen and you can't measure yourself against other teams, whether they're in your conference or not.
"You've got to take it week to week and our next game is the Chiefs."
The Chiefs were playing brilliant rugby and had great team spirit.
"So it's going to be a massive challenge for us and we're going to be under pressure again."