Rugby: Champs face going from first to worst

By Kris Shannon

Playmaker Aaron Cruden's direction will be vital for the Chiefs' last two round-robin Super Rugby games. Photo / Getty Images
Playmaker Aaron Cruden's direction will be vital for the Chiefs' last two round-robin Super Rugby games. Photo / Getty Images

It's as if the international break never happened.

The Chiefs looked like the same side who entered the June window during Friday's 29-25 crushing loss to the Highlanders, a defeat that leaves them on the outside of the playoff picture. The defending champions now need to win their two remaining games, preferably with bonus points, but that could still leave them short of the top six.

For a team that pay so much attention to detail, it must gall the Chiefs to know they rely on other results, with wins over the Hurricanes in Hamilton and the Blues in Auckland the bare minimum they must achieve in the next fortnight.

And the way they played against the Highlanders - the way they have played throughout this campaign - means attaining those results will be easier said than done.

Dunedin saw another listless effort in attack and another porous performance in defence, with the four-point final margin created only by a couple of late tries from the visitors.

Chances were again squandered after a week in which coach Dave Rennie preached the need for a clinical edge.

The Highlanders, instead, looked the far more accomplished in the backs, attacking from range and able to apply pressure when they earned field position.

The Chiefs now have a week to find solutions to a struggling set piece and an execution problem.

They will fancy their chances of inflicting revenge on a Hurricanes team who thumped them by 37 points before the June break, although they must be wary of an opposition scrapping for their playoff lives in their final regular season game.

With the Hurricanes leading the competition in the try-scoring stakes, the Chiefs could be facing another shootout to save their season.

Close, high-scoring games used to mean only one result for the Chiefs but they seem to have lost the ability to grind out those games.

The champs have a negative points differential at this late stage of the season, the second-worst mark in the top 10.

If they are to reverse that trend and sneak into the playoffs, the Chiefs will need to do a far better job of enacting the changes devised by the coaching staff during the break.

Much of the onus will be on playmaker Aaron Cruden's direction but the team require improvement in almost every facet. Otherwise, the slide from first to worst in an unforgiving New Zealand conference could soon be complete.

- APNZ

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