Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: New Zealand derbies super competitive

The Crusaders maintain a super standard of play. Photo / APN
The Crusaders maintain a super standard of play. Photo / APN

At last we have a decent New Zealand conference scrap after five years of sluggish Super rugby offerings.

In that time, only the Crusaders have been a beacon among the erratic New Zealand teams. Their worst round-robin finish in that time has been fourth as they picked up the 2008 title and ended as runner-up last season.

There have been blips of success for the others, probably better described as anomalies, such as the Chiefs finishing second in 2009 and the Canes coming third in the same season. On average though, results for the four other franchises have been underwhelming.

They may end up that way again this year, when the round-robin schedule wraps up in mid-July.

But at the moment, the Highlanders, Chiefs and Hurricanes are leading the New Zealand pack while the Crusaders and Blues are in the cellar with a solitary victory each.

The Crusaders will get a gift four points for a bye this week, while the Blues travel to Cape Town where they will tangle with the unbeaten Stormers. The Hurricanes have been the emerging surprise with two wins, but those victories came against the Lions then the Force who were dreadful in the last round.

This week, the Hurricanes will face their first challenge from a conference rival when they host the unbeaten Highlanders.

The southern side have begun the series with a relish and resistance which did not show through in any of their pre-season trial matches. None of their victories has been dominant - a four-point margin against the Chiefs, three against the Crusaders and a solitary point against the Waratahs - but they are leading the conference.

Captain Jamie Mackintosh fingered superior fitness as the backbone for his side's success.

"It is a great start. I didn't think we would be three from three, but I guess we can think about rotating players now," he said.

The latest 18-17 win against the Waratahs came despite another weird final flourish. Last week the Highlanders kicked the ball out several times when they confused the final arbiter as the ground clock instead of the referee.

This time, replacement halfback Jimmy Cowan bizarrely tried to hack the ball out to the longest touchline after the siren sounded, and came up well short, forcing his teammates to scramble the ball to safety.

Most rugby observers felt the Chiefs would struggle when they lost senior props Ben Afeaki and Toby Smith to lengthy injuries in round one.

It was a theme picked up by coach Dave Rennie.. "We had a lot of belief in our camp that we had a pack to compete," he said.

That conviction has proved solid so far and about as unyielding as the 138kg Ben Tameifuna on the tighthead side of the scrum and the irrepressible Sona Taumalolo on the other.

The twin Hawkes Bay pillars went home on Friday and, with their colleagues, messed up the Crusaders' test frontrow.

Forwards coach Tom Coventry has the pack in scrumming harmony which is rugby music for a franchise with scant Super rugby pedigree up front.

The Highlanders and Chiefs have weathered tough schedules to start the competition and may find some relief this round with encounters against the Hurricanes and Brumbies.

But they cannot drop their standards or allow their attitude to wander otherwise they will struggle as the champion Reds did against the lowly Rebels.

- NZ Herald

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Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

The latest commentary and analysis from senior rugby writer Wynne Gray. Wynne has been covering the All Blacks for more than 27 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

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