Chiefs, Highlanders to meet in key match in Super Rugby
The 11th round of Super Rugby may later be remembered as a point of transition between the Highlanders reign as champions and the Chiefs emergence as successors to their title.
Those teams meet in the pivotal match of the round and if the Chiefs can win at home, extending their winning streak to eight games to stay atop the table, later events might remember it as the moment the crown passed from one champion to another.
The Chiefs have been unconvincing in recent matches, beating the Hurricanes by a point and the Sharks by two points, but have found a way to win close matches which rivals to the title often have not.
And though the contest for the Super Rugby title is far from a two-team contest, Saturday's match at Hamilton rates as one of the season's watersheds.
With their 8-1 record and 37 points, the Chiefs have a five-point lead atop the standings the over seven-time champion Crusaders, though their Christchurch-based rivals have a game in hand. The Wellington-based Hurricanes, with 31 points, are next after last week's 50-17 win over the Lions in Johannesburg and can substantially strengthen their title claims in they can beat the Sharks in Durban on Saturday.
The Stormers, who lead the South African conference with 29 points, have a bye as do the Melbourne Rebels (23) who stayed on top of a weak Australian conference despite last weekend's loss to the Auckland-based Blues.
The Rebels hold a two-point lead in Australia over the Canberra-based Brumbies, who fell to the Highlanders last week, and the Waratahs whose playoff hopes were revived with recent wins over the Western Force and Stormers.
The Cape Town-based Stormers are still in first place in South Africa despite last weekend's contentious 32-30 loss to the Waratahs, leading the Lions by two points and the Bulls by three.
If the regular season was to end now, the Chiefs, Crusaders, Hurricanes and Highlanders would make the playoffs from New Zealand along with the Stormers and Lions as the leaders of the African conferences, the Rebels as the top-placed Australian side and the Pretoria-based Bulls as the last wildcard.
The Sharks are the only other African team still in contention and the Brumbies and Waratahs remain in the race for first place in Australia, which is likely their only path to the playoffs.
The Chiefs remain the overwhelming favorites and their main challenges appear to come from the Crusaders, who are now 7-1, the Hurricanes who have improved to 6-3 and Highlanders, who ended a two-match losing streak last week and are also 6-3.
The Rebels and Brumbies have 5-4 records and the Waratahs are 4-4. The Stormers and Lions are 6-3 but their records have been padded to some extent by relatively easy draws: the Stormers won't face a New Zealand team this season unless they make the playoffs.
The Chiefs have managed to continue winning, albeit with less authority than through their first seven matches when they were averaging almost 40 points per game, and despite the sort of injury toll that would likely drag down other teams.
Center Seta Tamanivalu is in doubt for the match against the Highlanders because of a thigh injury. Winger James Lowe and midfielder Charlie Ngatai are slowly making their way back from shoulder injuries.
"We tend to focus on who we've got rather than who we haven't," coach Dave Rennie said. "It's a bit of a revolving door. You lose someone, you get someone back in and so on. Whoever's wearing the jersey, it's their role to fulfil it."
Meanwhile, All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo and utility Marty Banks are poised to return for the Highlanders after long injury breaks, restoring two key members of last season's championship-winning backline.
Naholo made his return from his second leg fracture, scoring three tries in a local club match in Dunedin last weekend.
"Obviously he was a bit of a bully at club rugby getting three tries and setting up a couple," coach Jamie Joseph said. "The most important thing for Waisake is that he's 100 percent confident in his leg."
The Crusaders host the Queensland Reds on Friday to open the round.