Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Stats back Hurricanes as NZ's best

Significant challenges, including a host of New Zealand derbies, still lie ahead for the conference leader.

Top defender Alapati Leiua.
Top defender Alapati Leiua.

Hurricanes supporters rejoice, for the moment, at least. Not only is your team leading the New Zealand conference in the second half of the season, the statistics back up what you are probably thinking - that your team is the most entertaining of the competition.

And yet. Whether they remain there until the end is quite clearly another matter.

With the weather becoming much more winter-like (at least in New Zealand) and the Hurricanes playing New Zealand teams in their final five matches - including the Chiefs twice - they face big challenges in order to maintain their superiority.

Their ability to beat defenders is their biggest asset. They have four players in the Herald Rugby Stats Centre top 15 in this category, including Alapati Leiua, who is proving a revelation after moving from the wing to second-five, and in-form wing Julian Savea. Beauden Barrett and Andre Taylor are seventh and 15th respectively; the latter finding some of the form he showed so memorably two years ago.

Can Mark Hammett's men rely on that helter skelter game plan when it is hosing down in Wellington or Auckland or Hamilton? Do they have the ability to change to suit the conditions?

Their mauling has improved, we saw that when they nullified the Bulls, but doubts remain about whether they can dominate a game through mistake-free, set-piece-dominated rugby.

They will also face what should be a very angry Waratahs team in Sydney on Saturday after Michael Cheika's team bumbled their way to defeat against the Blues at Eden Park.

The Waratahs' backs hardly fired a shot last weekend, but Cheika will have fired a few during the week, and Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau, standouts in terms of carrying and offloading, respectively, are two individuals who could capitalise on the Hurricanes' open game.

Saturday's match in Christchurch between the Crusaders and Brumbies, two of the form teams of the competition, will be revealing. Both have the players and the game plan suited to wet conditions and play-offs rugby - and that is a territory-based, set-piece-oriented grind. The appearance of Richie McCaw, possibly from the reserves bench, will help the home team.

The Highlanders impressed hugely with their victory over the Sharks in Durban, and, while Malakai Fekitoa presents a much needed extra attacking option for them, they appear to be operating at close to their full potential. Shane Christie leads the way as the New Zealand player with the best tackle count.

Interestingly, the defending champion Chiefs, going through a tough time of it after winning only one match in their final six, have few standout players in terms of statistics. Their best is Aaron Cruden, currently out with a broken thumb, who is the fifth-equal best offloader with 13.

However, during their title-winning runs of the past two years they have always been considered better than the sum of their parts. They have a relatively good draw leading into the play-offs and once there, and with Cruden fit again, they will present a massive challenge to any opposition.

The Blues' run-in is challenging and besides which it's hard to see how they will turn around their woeful away record. Their final three matches are against the Force (away), Crusaders (away) and Chiefs (home). Charles Piutau, who has played every minute of every match, is easily their best attacking threat.

- NZ Herald

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