Kerr-Barlow key man for Chiefs - Blackadder
Tawera Kerr-Barlow will have the crosshairs resting on his neck on Friday night.
The feisty halfback has been fingered by Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder as one of the Chiefs' main mischief-makers ahead of the Super semifinal at Waikato Stadium and Blackadder will instruct his men to be alert for his darting runs and ferreting around the scrum base.
While Kerr-Barlow should welcome the extra attention as a backhanded compliment, he will be aware it could come at a cost if the Crusaders forwards clamp their paws around him in vulnerable situations to remind him why such matches are as intense as tests.
When the two sides met in Hamilton earlier this month, Kerr-Barlow spoiled the exit-ball from the Crusaders scrum and proved an accurate defender.
While his kicking game can be ropy, he compensates by making dangerous attacks with his ability to carry or run through defenders.
Although the Crusaders, who prevailed 28-21 when they previously met on July 6, embarrassed the Chiefs' scrum on several occasions, they were less clinical on their own ball and when Richie McCaw replaced injured No 8 Kieran Read in the second half Kerr-Barlow was constantly lurking to expose poor ball maintenance.
"I think their 9 (Kerr-Barlow) is the key to their game," Blackadder said. "He has had an outstanding season and Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill (Williams) give them all their go-forward. But I think if you focus one area you can often take your eye off the ball. They are a complete side; they play smart rugby."
Andrew Ellis, who lost his All Blacks spot to Piri Weepu and Aaron Smith earlier this season after earlier being invited to the national training camps that also included Kerr-Barlow, could use this encounter to reinforce his value to All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
Ellis' experience could prove vital as the Crusaders seek to keep the Chiefs' title collection at zero.
"Yeah, he puts a lot of pressure on around scrum and ruck time," Ellis acknowledged. "And our scrum ball was just a little bit untidy last time when they probably turned us around a little bit. It was a little bit messy.
"This week Richie and I will be just wanting dead flat ball. We don't want the scrum to move at all, just get it to his feet and move it."
Ellis, 28, is contracted to remain in New Zealand until the end of next year's Super campaign and will decide in the summer whether to re-commit.
His decision is likely to depend on whether Hansen wants him for the northern tour. The third spot may be a toss-up between Ellis and Kerr-Barlow.
Unlike the Bulls, who predictably instigated a narrow attack in last weekend's preliminary final 28-13 loss at AMI Stadium, the Chiefs will be confident of squeezing out more line breaks by midfielder Williams.
Despite the Crusaders tying him down until the 55th minute in the recent encounter in Hamilton, Williams produced a cracking try in the second half by climbing through four defenders.
"They will be better prepared, we gave them a real wake-up call and they have had two weeks to sort it out," Blackadder said.
"I expect they will throw some new stuff out there and try and catch us off guard."