Rugby: How high can the Chiefs fly?

By Dylan Cleaver

Aaron Cruden. Photo / Getty Images.
Aaron Cruden. Photo / Getty Images.

So it begins - The Big Push. There are three rounds of the Super 15 remaining, four New Zealand teams who still harbour hopes of making it to the playoffs and one hoping to escape the season with a little bit of dignity.

That odd team out, who shall remain nameless, get an extra week off, which pits the four hopefuls against each other in what shapes as a terrific Friday-Saturday night double-header.

The Highlanders are at longest odds to make the playoffs among the New Zealand sides. They sit eighth overall, fourth in the New Zealand Conference and face the table-topping Chiefs and the in-form Reds before collecting four points for the bye in round 18.

If the playoffs started tomorrow, the Hurricanes would take the sixth and final spot ... but they don't. In between now and the first qualifier on July 20, the Wellington-based franchise travel to Christchurch to face the Crusaders, get a bye before hosting the Chiefs in round 18. Unless they can get something out of tomorrow's clash, their odds will lengthen dramatically.

The Crusaders? They're moving nicely into position (yawn) at just the right time (yawn) of the season, but what else did you expect (zzzzz).

Which leaves us with the Chiefs, by some distance the most intriguing of the four prospects. This has been a season of epic over-achievement in the eyes of all but themselves.

It would take a collapse of Enron-like proportions for them to miss the playoffs, but with the Crusaders waiting for any sign of vulnerability, the Chiefs would feel a lot better about themselves and their playoff prospects if they could qualify in first position.

The three-week break is a step into the unknown but, heck, being the frontrunner for so long has been a step into the unknown for the Hamilton franchise.

Already there have been signs of vertigo.

In the final match before the break they scraped home against the Blues. Admittedly, it was probably the Blues' best performance since they beat the Bulls in Pretoria way back in round three, but it was hard to shake the feeling the Chiefs had started to go about their work with a sense of entitlement.

For a team that has been parsimonious all year, the concession of 34 points to the Blues was careless at best.

That won't wash against the Highlanders in Dunedin. Jamie Joseph's men have wobbled in the middle rounds, but the break would have done their threadbare squad the world of good. Remember, too, that the Highlanders and Reds are the only sides to have beaten the Chiefs this year.

Halfback Brendon Leonard found the disruption a peculiar proposition but thought any potential influence on future performances would be negligible.

"It's a bit different but we knew it was coming so we planned pretty well for it," he said. "Hopefully it won't hurt our momentum too much - we'll keep building it and keep trying to get better."

Leonard, on the bench for tonight's match behind the impressive Tawera Kerr-Barlow, believed the break was beneficial, giving the weary Chiefs time to repair the punctures that began to appear against the Blues.

The Chiefs' pre-eminence was reflected in the All Blacks' series against Ireland, with seven players involved in some capacity in the clean sweep. Sonny Bill Williams was ever-present for the three victories, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Cruden, Sam Cane and Liam Messam all earned starts, while Hika Elliot and Ben Tameifuna provided cover.

Cruden's impact in the third test was immense. In 23 minutes he set up three tries, but it was what happened in the 24th minute that would have interested coach Dave Rennie the most.

The first five-eighths limped off with Achilles trouble and although he has been cleared to start at Forsyth Barr Stadium, his right leg will become the most monitored appendages of the season's closing weeks.

It's not just the Highlanders who loom large, either.

The Chiefs return from Dunedin to host the Crusaders and end the regular season with a trip to the capital to face the Hurricanes in a match that will also be billed as the battle of Dan Carter's heir-apparents, with Beauden Barrett likely to be standing opposite Cruden.

It's a brutal road in - a big push that will no doubt define their season.

Additional reporting: APNZ

- NZ Herald

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