Chiefs vs. Hurricanes highlights ninth round of Super Rugby
Clashes at the top and bottom of the table hold primary interest in the weekend's ninth round of Super Rugby, though the tournament's complex conference system seems to be taxing fans' interest.
The Chiefs return to action after a bye last week, still atop the table as the season passes its midpoint and about to face one of the toughest tests of their season so far against the Hurricanes.
New Zealand teams — the Chiefs (29 points), Crusaders (27), Hurricanes (25) and Highlanders (23) — occupy four of the top five places on the ladder and seem likely to capture playoffs places despite a system which compensates for the weakness of other conferences.
The Stormers, who still lead the South African conference despite last weekend's loss to the Lions, are only fourth on the overall table while the ACT Brumbies, who lead in Australia, are eighth when the conferences are combined.
Three of the bottom four spots on the table are occupied by newcomers — Argentina's Jaguares, Japan's Sunwolves and South Africa's Kings — who joined the competition this season, bearing out criticisms of the tournament's expansion.
The worst fears of tournament organizers were realized last week when the Sunwolves were beaten 92-17 by the Cheetahs, the fifth-ranked South African team. The Sunwolves had been competitive in all their previous matches but in Bloemfontein last weekend they looked sapped, bewildered and dispirited.
They now have to face the Jaguares, whose only win of the season came at the expense of the Cheetahs in the opening round.
The Sunwolves' 14-try defeat by the Cheetahs came only a week after coach Mark Hammett boasted they had "exceeded expectations" in their debut season. Now captain Shota Horie said the Sunwolves must "start from scratch."
"It was a difficult result and we need to rebuild and work hard," Horie said. "We are a little bit fatigued but we can't use that as an excuse. It's going to come down to physical conditioning from here on."
With half the season still to go only eight teams — the four leading teams from New Zealand, the Stormers, Bulls and Lions in South Africa and the Brumbies in Australia — appear to still be in the title race.
The Brumbies last week put paid to their main opposition in Australia by beating the New South Wales Waratahs for the second time this season. The Waratahs argue they are still a chance but would need a massive form transformation. So too the Blues who, despite recent wins over the Jaguares and Sharks, remain well off the pace in New Zealand.
The Sharks' challenge was blunted by last weekend's loss to the Blues and they face defending champions the Highlanders this weekend, needing to win to turn around their season.
The clash between the Chiefs and Hurricanes features a number of outstanding individual matchups, notably between flyhalves Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett. The Chiefs' Cruden and Hurricanes' Barrett are leading contenders for the All Blacks No. 10 jersey this season after the retirement of Dan Carter.
"It doesn't really come into my preparation for a game," Cruden said of his meeting with Barrett. "You're aware of your opposite of course and the threats that they pose and certain tendencies that they have but I don't go out there saying 'I'm going to play better than the number 10 in their team'."
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said "it's a helluva clash isn't it? They've been in pretty good form recently so hopefully it meets expectations.
"There's a few good personal matchups. I always found that in preparing for matches against teams like the Brumbies or the Crusaders motivation is really high. I get more nervous preparing for the Kings and those sort of teams.
"I think all the New Zealand conference teams are tough. The Hurricanes have got some impressive athletes who can really punish you."