The Tight Five: What we learned after Super Rugby Round 11
This is where things begin to get interesting.
The Hurricanes and Chiefs are jostling for position, not only as the leading New Zealand Conference teams, but both sides are clear of the rest of the table (Hurricanes 38, Chiefs 37, Brumbies 31, Stormers 30).
Round 14 and 18 loom as pseudo finals, with the teams meeting in Wellington and New Plymouth respectively.
Highlanders’ loss proves how important key men can be
While the troops from Otago continue to make a mockery of the correlation between Test representatives and success – there were countless aspects the Brumbies capitalised on with the absence of the 'Landers terrific trio.
Malakai Fekitoa was not on hand to provide the attack straightening runs that few defences can hold, and while Fumiaki Tanaka’s lively passing game was promising, his absence of a running move (zero carries) allowed the Brumbies back row to set a consistent defensive pattern from the ruck.
Ben Smith was not at the rear to defuse what were clear backyard offensives. Jesse Mogg and Christian Lealiifano sent 12 kicks to the skies while the Brumbies fullback, returning from injury, was able to peel off 129 metres on attack without the deterrent of Smith.
Still, head coach Jamie Joseph knows his international stars have had a couple of weeks important break.
It is likely that there will be no bubble bursting for the Hurricanes
The match in Brisbane, against a Reds team looking for the first time in 2015 as if they were hitting some form, could have been a banana-skin fixture. This was something recognised by the touring coaching staff who rolled out the bulk of their heavy infantry.
While some All Blacks will require rest, the side – thanks to their blockbusting beginning to the season – have four matches in Wellington over their next six games, ample time to secure a Super Rugby Finals Series berth.
The Queenslanders certainly put up a fight, but in the end it was the likes of Ma’a Nonu and his All Blacks team-mates out wide (led by James Marshall with 124 metres) who ran a collective 522 metres.
The forwards added another 105, remarkably their lowest running return of any match in 2015.
A side that early in the season boasted tactics leaning heavily towards defence, is beginning to stretch their legs on attack.
With each passing week the Hurricanes are passing the ball more, running increased metres while making more attacking (defenders beaten, clean breaks and offloads) plays per carry as the season progresses.
Wins breed confidence, and this side looks like they believe.
Can the Crusaders do it?
This is a team that has scored 31 tries, ran 5,036 metres and registered 272 points so far in 2015, the best of any other side, is clear evidence that the ninth placed side in this season of Super Rugby is potentially a sleeping giant.
But while they are just three competition point outside the top six, time is running out.
The red and blacks are one of 11 teams with just six games to play.
The issue for Todd Blackadder’s men is that that the Hurricanes and Highlanders, above the seven-time champions on the table – have seven matches remaining.
There is also the small matter of an immensely challenging finish for the Crusaders, who have a little comfort with the knowledge the bulk of their All Blacks will be available for the closing finish.
Only two of their last six are at AMI Stadium.
The Hurricanes, Waratahs, Blues and Brumbies away represent enough of a collective challenge which could force the Canterbury based team out of the Super Rugby Finals Series for the first time since 2001.
Chiefs eyeing their legacy
Three titles in four years would be a compelling argument for a dynasty.
The Force put the frighteners into the Hamilton crowd as they finished 27-35 against the two-time champions, but there is a resilience about Dave Rennie’s men that is obvious for all to behold.
It is a tough run from here.
There are no more games to be played at Waikato Stadium, even if matches against the Bulls (round 15 in Rotorua) and Hurricanes (round 18 in New Plymouth) are considered home affairs.
This is though a very good Chiefs team.
They are top-of-the-pops for clean breaks (106), defenders beaten (211), tackle success (88.8) and offloads (166), while their 84% home winning percentage (again, the best of any) has them well set up for a closing run to towards the finals.
Australia/South Africa watch
This is a mesmerising close to the 2015 Investec Super Rugby season for the other two conferences.
The Stormers (30 competition points, third overall) have won their last three, and have only been defeated three times in their ten fixtures so far – all of which were to New Zealand teams.
The men from Cape Town have four straight matches at home in their final six, the smoothest finish to the regular season of any South African side.
The Lions have won six matches, two more and they will break their franchise record, and they have three more home games and no more international travel in their final six.
The Bulls are fifth overall, but are still to travel overseas to the Antipodes for the traditional four game tour.
A similar situation exists for the Brumbies, they have three more chances to impress their home crowd but still have to travel to the Republic.
The defending champions, one competition point outside the top six, are in Canberra and Perth next up, while they too are still to make the long haul flight to the bottom of Africa.