Rugby: Cruden recovery vital to title hopes

By Kris Shannon

The next fortnight for the Chiefs will be about surviving rather than thriving in an increasingly crowded New Zealand conference.

It's an unusual prospect for the two-time defending champions but one borne out of an unenviable injury list and an underwhelming patch of one win from six games.

The five New Zealand teams now sit within five points of one another and the Chiefs can ensure they remain at the front of the field in their next two home fixtures, a must-win against the lowly Lions and a suddenly intriguing battle with the Blues.

Following that arrives the bye and the promise of a return to fitness of Aaron Cruden, a player whose undoubted importance has become even clearer in his absence.

Then there's the run home: Five games, four of which are New Zealand derbies, in a decisive stretch that will determine whether these Chiefs are capable of matching the Crusaders as the only winners of a hat-trick of Super Rugby titles.

That much has remained unclear over the last six weeks, when the champs have scratched out wins, conjured miraculous comebacks and, on Friday night, suffered a serious setback against the Brumbies.

The Chiefs' casualty list was in double digits heading into the humbling in Canberra, with the exertions of nine straight games starting to tell. Even accounting for the best depth of any Kiwi side, their lack of consistency is perhaps unsurprising given all the injuries, the most consequential of which is to their pivot.

Gareth Anscombe has proved an able deputy but there is a reason the Chiefs flourished for two seasons while Cruden barely missed a minute. His team's attack looks lost at times without him, with an error-riddled display against the Brumbies exhibiting a worrying lack of imagination.

The defence is still staunch - illustrated in the first half on Friday before the Brumbies capitalised when James Lowe was sent to the sin bin - and no one will ever question the commitment and heart of the champs.

But those attributes can take a team only so far - the Chiefs earned the title last season as the competition's top scorers. If the attack is to again find form, Cruden's comeback will be the catalyst, and there's no reason to doubt his broken thumb will require longer than the initial six weeks to heal.

So if the Chiefs can limp to the bye having picked up a few more points, expect a playoff push to begin in Wellington on May 24.

"We have to be a hell of a lot better, there's no doubt about that," coach Dave Rennie said after the match. "We're all frustrated ... we got outplayed but we're certainly not panicking."

Possibly of more concern to Rennie is the mounting group of his players kept on the sideline because of concussion. Liam Squire, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Ben Afeaki were unable to travel to Canberra due to head knocks, with the latter still feeling the effects of a round one collision with Brodie Retallick.

Moe Schwalger, impressive in the scrum and lineout in the first 40 against the Brumbies, was added to the cluster with concussion and, with a growing awareness of the long-term effects of head knocks, the issue is bound to be closely monitored as the season progresses.

- APNZ

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