The Tight Five: What we learned about the NZ teams
James Mortimer 09 Jul 2014 Getty Images
All eyes to the North…
A bonus point win for the champions will keep the elusive dream of a ‘three-peat’ alive, with the Chiefs goal of emulating the Crusaders in the late nineties – the only team to claim three successive crowns – possible due to the fact that fate is still in the hands of Dave Rennie and his troops.
The Chiefs 24-16 win against the Hurricanes was timely, breaking a three match losing streak, but if they do remain in contention, their biggest challenge is still to come.
One thing is for certain, the Chiefs will not finish in the top two as they have during their title years, and how a side that has won just once on the road this year can overcome first Eden Park and then potentially Australia or South Africa will be intriguing.
The Blues would need a massive bonus point victory (39 points or more) to knock out the Chiefs and potentially the Hurricanes.
But a side that has looked very classy at times, all of their victories have been impressive, but have looked bumbling with almost every loss – will want to ensure that at least Eden Park remains unconquered for 2014 with the side chasing their seventh straight win there this weekend.
Hurricanes to wait and see
It will be a nail biting weekend in the capital for a side taking the competition’s final bye of the season.
Hoping that the Blues do them a favour and knock off the champions on Friday, a win for the Chiefs will automatically end the Wellington based franchise’s season.
If Sir John Kirwan's men win, it will come down to the Brumbies and Force meeting in the second match of Round 19 for the Hurricanes.
Failure by the losing side in the ACT to pick up a bonus point will all but guarantee Mark Hammett’s men knockout action – but with one less win than both Australian teams, if the table is gridlocked at the conclusion of the round then the Hurricanes will miss out.
Battle of the South is clash for the conference
A bonus point victory for the Highlanders will see them match the efforts of the 1999 vintage, who finished third in that season’s Super 12 to be the highest ranked New Zealand team.
Such a win will also see the men from the Deep South break New Zealand’s longest absence from the Super Rugby Finals Series, with the Otago based franchise seeking to end a 12 year hiatus from elimination rugby.
With other results going their way the Highlanders could benefit even with defeat.
This would complete a remarkable turnaround for a side that finished 14th overall last season with just three wins, the currently 4th placed side will be hunting for a franchise record nine wins in Christchurch.
Crusaders, will this be the time?
While they have continued to feature in the Super Rugby Finals Series year after year, failure to add to their seven championships since 2008 is considered a blemish on the record of a team that redefined the concept of ‘domestic dominance’.
They haven’t been imperious in their own backyard for some time now, there is no weak team in the New Zealand group - while four wins from seven matches in Christchurch represent the worst home return for the Crusaders since the competition began in 1996.
All Blacks are watching
It is unlikely that there will be any major changes to Steve Hansen’s squad for The Investec Rugby Championship, with 25 new faces introduced to the regime since the World Cup win, the selection pool won’t want to be muddled over a year out from their Webb Ellis defence.
However for a few players, this is their last chance to put their hand up.
As it was with the Commonwealth Games Sevens squad revealed yesterday, the reality is some big names will miss out playing against Argentina, Australia and South Africa in the coming months.
The (bar a massive surprise) return of Dan Carter to the squad ensures a form first five-eighth will miss the cut, while the likely need to reveal a group heavy with forwards could see some halfbacks drop out.
One cannot see the impressive new boys Malakai Fekitoa and Patrick Tuipulotu miss out, while players returning from injury such as Charles Piutau are certain to get a nod based on their 2013 exploits.
There is also the niggling question of another All Blacks hooker, will the selectors deem that the upcoming tournament is too tough an environment to blood a new Test rake?
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