Chiefs yet to play their best
There are some perks to being part of a defending champion Investec Super Rugby outfit. There's a coat of glory, an unabated confidence that 'it's all been done before'.
The Chiefs have been fortunate this year. Some hard-fought, come-from-behind victories have been a test of character for the defending champions. Their mettle, though, will be tested in the next three weeks against teams desperate for competition points.
After Friday's final home game of the regular season against the Hurricanes, the Chiefs travel to Christchurch and Auckland for matches against the Crusaders and the Blues, both of which have tasted Super Rugby success.
Chiefs prop Ben Afeaki was a part of the 2012 championship-winning team and understands his side will be kept honest over the remaining three weeks of the regular season.
"I think it's always a challenge this year because as the defending champions, everyone tries to come at you," said Afeaki.
"We've got a lot to play for. Heading into the playoffs we're looking to play the best rugby we can."
Indeed the Chiefs have yet to impress critics with an 80-minute performance in 2013. While patches of brilliance have highlighted their potential in a number of matches, there's been an inability to shut out teams due to a rough quarter, a poor 30 minutes. Rough patches don't win matches.
The Chiefs had the luxury of additional points ahead of the three-week layoff courtesy of a bye, points that proved valuable as the Hurricanes and Blues lost ground in the New Zealand conference.
The bye also allowed the players to get out and do some work in the community, something Afeaki, who made his All Blacks debut in the second Test against France, acknowledged while speaking at their first full session as a team for three weeks on Monday.
"I know the boys have been working pretty hard virtually the whole time. They've been doing a lot of work and it's exciting to be getting back into the environment."
The prop understands the threats posed by the Hurricanes. Mark Hammett's side have been there-or-thereabouts in the 2013 competition, and at present sit in ninth spot on 39 points.
They trail the Blues (eighth, 43 points) and Waratahs (seventh, 44), but victories against the Chiefs and the Highlanders could catapult them into the top six at the expense of the Cheetahs or Crusaders, who are both on 46 points.
The Hurricanes boast an intimidating forward pack featuring none other than former Chiefs prop Ben May. May, who is leaving for Japanese club Sanix at the end of the Super Rugby season, has had a hearty season and is usually filled with plenty of chat come game time.
"I think if we look after our set piece and play the game we train to play, then I think we'll be alright," Afeaki added. "But it's about how we front on Friday I guess."
The encounter kicks off at 7.35pm on Friday at Hamilton's Waikato Stadium.