Stormers, Crusaders aiming to cut Chiefs lead in Super Rugby
The Chiefs will welcome a bye in the eighth round of matches in Super Rugby, even if it gives rivals a chance to pare back the six-point lead atop the competition standings.
After an arduous travel schedule during which they improved their win-loss record to 6-1 while dealing with a heavy injury toll, the Hamilton-based Chiefs have a chance for some recovery time before tackling the second half of the regular season.
Whatever the outcome of weekend matches, the Chiefs are assured of remaining in top spot with 29 points after eight of 17 regular season rounds and can take heart that their closest rival in New Zealand, the defending champion Highlanders (23 points), also have an eighth-round bye.
The Stormers, who also have 23 points and top the South African conference, can close the gap to the Chiefs on the overall standings, though they have perhaps the toughest task of the round when they face the Lions (18 points) in Johannesburg.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders (22 points) can also close the gap of the Chiefs when they open the round at home to Argentina's Jaguares, who seem increasingly worn down by injuries on a long road trip near the middle of their debut season.
If Wellington's Hurricanes (20 points) can post a fifth consecutive win when they take on the Rebels in Melbourne, they also will cut into the Chiefs advantage and maintain a competition ladder on which New Zealand teams hold four of the top-five places.
The Chiefs headed into their bye week with a scratchy 29-23 win over the Auckland-based Blues which suggested the toll of recent travel was beginning to catch up with them.
After their second-round loss to the Lions in Hamilton, the Chiefs beat the Kings in South Africa, the Jaguares in Argentina, the Western Force at home, the ACT Brumbies in Canberra and the Blues in Hamilton.
The Chiefs are averaging almost six tries per game, although their attack didn't spark against the Blues and they also fell off tackles in a performance which suggested fatigue and the need for a break to refresh and take stock.
The Stormers have spent the season atop the South African conference, establishing a 5-1 record which includes two winning bonus points, and a consolation point from their only loss. But the conference format of Super Rugby has made it hard to judge the form of teams from different regions.
The Chiefs, by winning in South Africa, Australia and Argentina, have made their ability clear. The Stormers also made a strong statement with a home win over the Brumbies but, while they have beaten the Jaguares away, they have been favored with a draw which ensures they don't have to face any New Zealand teams in New Zealand.
That remarkable concession means their real mettle is unlikely to be tested before the playoffs as the New Zealand conference has proven to be considerably stronger than those in Australia and Africa.
Springboks center Damian de Allende, who returned from injury to make his first appearance of the season for the Stormers against the Sunwolves last weekend, is happy with the way the Cape Town-based team is performing.
"It is a very relaxed set-up off the field so everyone gets treated the same way," he said. "There are no egos or arrogant people here.
"It is nice to come here because every day we want to get better as individuals and as a team, and you know that no-one is leaving it short."
Former All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg will make his first appearance in 2016 for the Crusaders against the Jaguares while captain Ryan Crotty will play his 100th Super Rugby match.
"It has been a quick turnaround this week, returning from Perth on Sunday to playing on Friday night," coach Todd Blackadder said. "But there will be no problem keeping motivation and energy levels up for the team with a home crowd and an exciting new team to face."
The Jaguares have made nine changes for their last match in New Zealand before they head to Japan to play the Sunwolves.