The Tight Five: What we learned about the NZ Super Rugby teams
The tenth round of the Investec Super Rugby Championship has passed, and with 61 games played, we are now officially halfway through the 2014 season.
Dual New Zealand Conference derbies saw the Hurricanes and Crusaders emerge triumphant, while the Highlanders would have been pleased to see they remain just three points outside the top six, despite playing the least (seven) amount of matches of any team.
Balance of power shifting?
Earning six competition points (thanks to four-try efforts) in South Africa has allowed the defending Investec Super Rugby champions to remain top of the charts locally, but just four measly points separate them from the Crusaders and Hurricanes – and those two teams are on three-match winning streaks.
The Chiefs are still showing that trademark grittiness that has taken them to a title before, and their pedigree as two-time and current winners gives them a little bit of gratis, but results do not lie, they have won just one of their last five matches.
There are four New Zealand teams in the top eight, and the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Highlanders are bunched and waiting just outside the hallowed ground of a Super Rugby Finals Series elect.
But local bragging rights will have to wait for now, there isn’t another Kiwi derby until Round 13.
Hurricanes beginning to swagger
With 26 tries and 232 points scored, the best in the competition, the Hurricanes attacking machine is humming, and the manner in which they took on the Blues – still ranked as one of Super Rugby’s better offensive outfits themselves – spoke of a team supremely confident in their own skin.
Their third four-try bonus point, giving the men from Wellington five overall (equal with the Chiefs and the Bulls) has them firmly in final’s contention, while their strike weapons are beginning to shine with lethality.
Julian Savea and midfield revelation Alapati Leiua are among Super Rugby’s form backs, but it was noticeable how the Hurricanes, as always one of the try scoring delights of Super Rugby, were able to match a Blues pack stacked with All Blacks despite the absence of Ben Franks.
Hammett's desire for a bit of structure seems to be taking shape.
Crusaders commence their customary charge
In recent weeks the Chiefs have backed their fitness and ability to pile on the points in the back end of a contest, their closing blitzkriegs against the Bulls and Cheetahs were impressive, but the Crusaders grimly went about their business and overcame an eight point deficit to win.
Not even the champions trademark high octane finish could deny the men from Christchurch.
Two matches into the season and not a single competition point had some oddly writing off the seven-time champions even if many of their title winning campaigns have come from what is an almost expected slow start.
Six matches later the Crusaders have won five games and sit within Super Rugby Finals Series qualifications with 22 points – just three behind the Chiefs and nine behind the table topping Sharks.
No Richie McCaw, no Dan Carter and after half an hour there was no Kieran Read, but despite the presence of senior All Blacks like Liam Messam and Brodie Retallick on the opposite side of the field, it was the visitors who eventually took the honours as the forwards emerged from the trenches.
Highlanders primed to invade Africa
With a game in hand over every other team (two against the Bulls, Cheetahs and Lions), coach Jamie Joseph would have been pleasantly surprised to see his side remain in touch with the top six despite cooling their heels on a flight to the Republic.
Three straight matches against South African opposition, with the next fortnight seeing the Highlanders play in Durban and Cape Town, should suit a Southern side that plays a solid and uncompromising brand of rugby that could yield results against the more stoic Africans.
It won’t be all smooth sailing despite the performances of their All Blacks in Ben and Aaron Smith and rising centre Malakai Fekitoa. The Highlanders have six of their final nine matches on the road and will be without Brad Thorn and TJ Ioane in South Africa.
Blues might have to consign themselves to giant killer
With 16 competition points after eight matches the Blues will need to hit fifth gear and fast if they are to turn their season around, the fact that they are a bonus point win away from the second placed (in the NZ Conference) Crusaders is nothing more than a mirage.
In previous years franchises have needed between 53 to 56 competition points to qualify for the knockout stage of the season, meaning that if Sir John Kirwan’s team can win each and every one of their game with a bonus point they can sneak through.
Such a task might be difficult considering the competitiveness of Super Rugby so far this year, but the Blues could hurt the chances of some other top teams if they can regain some confidence and attacking groove.