Wynne Gray 's Opinion

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Odds don't favour Chiefs or Crusaders

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Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

Everything is stacked against the Chiefs, said my mate who is a rabid supporter of the franchise.

He was talking about this weekend's game against the Crusaders, one which takes on extra significance as New Zealand sides start to chew into their derbies.

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The Blues and Hurricanes go at it first on Friday before the Chiefs lay out their champion credentials against the Crusaders who set the standards for Super Rugby. The trouble is they won their seventh title in 2008 and haven't claimed another since.

That pattern has created an uncomfortable itch in red-and-black land, one they nearly scratched in 2011 and came within a semifinal point of the Chiefs last season. Close, but that's no comfort.

Nor has it halted those who believe the side is on the slide and while very competent, does not have the killer sting left in its group to collect what would be a first in coach Todd Blackadders's six years in charge.

It's not as if the Chiefs have lit up the competition in the past month as they worked through a loss, two stalemates and a scratchy win.

That's just the point, my mate added. The Chiefs had lost their snap and too many players - including the general, Aaron Cruden - to injury and would be undone by the Crusaders' greater experience and rising self-belief.

Hang on a minute. We've heard the Chiefs say the toughest game is the first after a gruelling road trip to South Africa so why wouldn't that theory apply to the Crusaders? Consider how this week pans out for them.

They played their latest match against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and then had an overnight stay before making the 12,000km journey back to New Zealand.

Learning how to win, how to hang tough and get the most from their men throughout a series has been the Chiefs' trait in recent campaigns.

The competition is only half finished but the Chiefs have a six-point cushion on the Crusaders, where a repeat win would be nectar.

The Chiefs may be without the big rig Brodie Retallick after his second concussion this season, the first coming in the side's opening 18-10 victory against the Crusaders. There are other absentees such as Robbie Fruean from this repeat duel although the Chiefs have Sam Cane and Tanerau Latimer who were injured for that match.

Richie McCaw, Luke Whitelock, Tim Perry and Nafi Tuitavake are Crusaders from that first meeting who are on the damaged list, but they have Kieran Read returning to form and Nemani Nadolo doing some damage on the wing.

The Chiefs coaching group of Dave Rennie, Tom Coventry, Wayne Smith and Andrew Strawbridge is at the top of their game and will have been absorbing the Crusaders' work and plotting how to nullify their strengths.

How can their fitful set piece hold up against the test men in the Crusaders? Is Augustine Pulu a better halfback to start than Tawera Kerr-Barlow? How can they best use the jack in the box talents of Tim Nanai-Williams?

Every game in the New Zealand pool has an edge to it and as we move towards the first All Black squad for the June test series with England, the weekend derbies give the selectors valuable feedback - just the sort my mate is going to get when his lack of faith is exposed.

- NZ Herald

Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

NZ Herald senior rugby writer Wynne Gray has been covering the All Blacks for almost 25 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

Read more by Wynne Gray

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