Patrick McKendry lists five reasons why a New Zealand team will win this year's Super Rugby competition.
Don't read too much into the Chiefs' set piece struggles in last weekend's heavyweight clash against the Crusaders. Their lineout will improve and the addition of lock Craig Clarke will help in this area after his late withdrawal at Waikato Stadium. Their scrum has been surprisingly good, as has their defence. They have lost only three matches this season - one more than the Stormers - but their overall game is much better than that of the South Africans. Their chances will be lifted further if they qualify for a home final by earning a bonus point win against the Hurricanes this weekend. Home advantage is everything in the playoffs. Only one side, the Bulls in 2007, has won a final away from home since the Crusaders did their three-peat on the road from 1998-2000. In Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams they have two quality inside backs. They have every chance of going all the way this year.
They have the record - seven titles - and the firepower, but have lacked a little of what has made the Chiefs so successful this season - consistency.
Having so many All Blacks is a double-edged sword. The Crusaders began slowly after the highs of the World Cup - sneaking home against the Blues and then losing to the Highlanders and Chiefs - and the recent test break also hurt them. They should have accounted for the Hurricanes in Christchurch but were off the pace. They are often guilty of not performing when they are clear favourites - their loss to the Rebels in Melbourne was a shocker but spurred them to big home wins over the Blues and Highlanders. They must treat the Force with respect this weekend. A win will make them the top wildcard team and they'll fancy their chances of winning their first title since 2008, travel be damned.
Stormers' lack of attack
They are the team with the best defence but with one of the worst attacking records. They simply struggle to score tries - it took a late touchdown from wing Gio Aplon to beat the Cheetahs last weekend with a familiar narrow scoreline (13-6). They have scored only 324 points - only the lowly Force and Lions have scored fewer. However, the other side of the ledger shows why they are second on the table - 233 points scored against. Defence wins big matches which is why the Stormers are in with a decent shout, but the Crusaders won't fear them too much if they have to travel to Cape Town - they beat them there twice last season, including a comfortable 29-10 victory in their semifinal. The Bulls and Sharks remain in the mix but are too inconsistent, especially away from home.
Brumbies' lack of inspiration
Although they have the second best defensive record, the Brumbies have failed to impress in what is clearly the weakest conference. The vagaries of the draw also meant they didn't face the Stormers or the Crusaders - a huge boost - and they have scrapped their way to almost every one of their 10 victories. They also have a weakness at first-five - Christian Lealifaano has recovered from injury but at one stage they were discussing bringing Stephen Larkham out of retirement. As for the other Aussie team with title pretensions, the Reds, their shocking start will probably cost them.
Mark Hammett's team could still play a big part in this competition. A victory, and other results going their way, would propel them into the play-offs and from there anything can happen. Their major weakness is their set piece which, although they shook off a scrum pounding to beat the Crusaders, is guaranteed to be exposed in the finals. Halfback TJ Perenara's injury is also a massive blow.
- APNZBy Patrick McKendry Email Patrick