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The Tight Five: 18 the magic number for three NZ contenders

If Chris Boyd, Dave Rennie and Jamie Joseph were to pull out their calculators after their respective teams continued their strong Investec Super Rugby form, they would be surprised with the fact they are all on the verge of the finals.

The Hurricanes need just three competition points which will not only wrap up the New Zealand conference but – with the side boasting a 16 point lead over the best Australian/South African team – guarantee the Wellington based outfit top-of-the-table status going into the knockout stages.

Incredibly, if the Chiefs ‘drop’ three competition points (Landers two) in the next three weeks – for example they were to lose one game – then the Canes will be assured of top spot without a single additional competition point to their name.


Eight and Seven – Date in Heaven

The Chiefs need ten competition points to ensure that the Brumbies cannot overtake them as the highest placed wildcard team will gives Rennie’s troops home rights in the opening week of the finals.

The Highlanders need nine.

However eight and seven points respectively will result in (other results will not count) three New Zealand teams in the top six.

The delightful dilemma here is that the two sides have to play each other in Dunedin first, a clash which could decide who gets a home qualifying final.

The Southerners have recently, for the first time this millennium, gone back-to-back over the Chiefs and will be keen to grab their sixth victory at home this year in eight matches.


Should we stop the competition now?

Have the Hurricanes been so impressive this season that the title is theirs to lose?

Form and results suggest yes, and while pessimists might argue that the men from the capital have been talked about as a championship contender before, they have never looked like this.

Most agree that the difference has been the set piece, for as impressive as the defensive mettle of the top ranked team may be, they have been an intimidating tackling machine before.

But a season where the forwards have dominated all comers? That hasn’t happened before in Wellington.

Not convinced?

87.7% tackle rate (.1% behind the Lions), 95% ruck retention (2nd equal) but above all a mighty 96% scrum completion – the best in the business.

If that % rate holds, the Hurricanes will end the 2015 season as the best scrum completion unit since Investec Super Rugby expanded in 2011.


Not enough?

How does 45 tries (1st), a +143 points difference (1st by 41 points) and an average winning margin of 11 points (best by any Hurricanes team ever) add to their pedigree?

Crusaders malaise irrelevant for All Blacks

If the negativity regarding the Crusaders form (who despite some reports are not out of finals calculations) was genuine, then New Zealand might as well not bother sending a team to the Rugby World Cup.

The sheer experience and pedigree of the likes of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter won’t be concerning those in the All Blacks inner circle (presence is far beyond form on the pitch), while 375 points scored (1st) and 44 tries (2nd) indicate a team that can perform.

Theories are abundant as to why the seven-time champions may miss out on the finals for the first time since 2001, but one forgets one very simple fact.

Never have the Crusaders had to contend with such powerful domestic rivals.

The last All Blacks squad named featured ten Crusaders (versus nine Canes, seven Chiefs, five Blues and three Highlanders).

The first Test squad of 2015 could see a new region emerge as the dominant feeder to the World Champions.


The art of closing out a contest

If one was to review the match stats with a fine toothed comb at Eden Park one would assume that it might have been a close game.

For example the Blues, not noted for their defence this season, missed 17 tackles, the same number as the Hurricanes who attempted 29 less, while at halftime the home team were making nearly double the running metres (over six) compared to the tourists (well below three).

By the end of the game the metres per carry was almost even.

Boyd remarked post match that the team had been blessed with few injuries – especially compared to their rivals – and many trainers would agree that injuries and fitness can be related.

The controlled finishes we are seeing from the Canes indicates that their fitness may be at a level far beyond we have seen in the past; an aspect the All Blacks pride themselves on.


Waratahs and Rebels showcase All Black beating blueprint?

While the Springboks have been the traditional heavyweight competitor for the All Blacks over time, a 14-6 record in 2015 Investec Super Rugby between New Zealand and the Republic suggests a potential edge to the men in black.

However an 11-7 ledger against Australian teams tells a different story.

The Waratahs have won seven of their last eight against Kiwi sides, while the Rebels, almost a polar opposite tactically to the New South Welshmen, have a 3-1 record against New Zealand teams in 2015.

Lessons?

The Waratahs remain one of the most attack minded teams in Super Rugby, and what has been impressive is that they are largely sticking to the same blueprint that carried them to glory last year.

Proving that pure offensive play with a stubborn mandate to persist with this style works in rugby.

Equally the Rebels major focus on defence this year has resulted in one of their best ever seasons and their approach has worked wonders when it comes to shutting down a New Zealand attack.

There won’t be too much excitement however.

Many times before Australian rugby has gained confidence thanks to Super Rugby, but the All Blacks have grimly proved there is little correlation between the two tournaments.

In 2007, the Bulls made a mockery of this as they provided the spine of a Bok team that conquered the world. Will Michael Cheika and the core of his Waratahs be able to do the same thing?