A look back at round 16 of the Super 15 and which teams and players stood out.
THE FAB FOUR
Each week the Armchair Coach looks at the four most impressive teams in the Super 15, with a view to their title chances.
Won 23 - 22 v Crusaders • 3rd NZC, 6th overall
Wow. What a way to stay alive and further proof of New Zealand's remarkable depth. To most pundits, the Hurricanes were no-chance in Christchurch. They flew into the mini mauls/rucks that are all the rage and held their nerve when the All Blacks-laden Crusaders built a platform early in the second half. Andre Taylor, Brad Shields and co. relished this opportunity under pressure. The Hurricanes also overcame something more dangerous than the Crusaders - their own faulty set pieces. Coach Mark Hammett, the old Crusaders frontrower, will be over the moon but those lineouts and scrums need fixing.
Won 27 - 21 v Highlanders • 1st overall
Exposed the Highlanders' flaws - a lack of genuine self-belief and sufficient quality across the squad. The match developed into a rugged affair with a brawl that led to Sonny Bill Williams mouthing off like, well, like a professional boxer at a weigh in. The Chiefs not only talked but walked the walk on attack, living off rare opportunities.
The Chiefs show an inner confidence in their scoring potential - they are alert to supporting breaks and position themselves nicely to do so. This was often a hallmark of the champion Crusaders teams - a certain calmness where others fail by getting over-excited. A mighty battle between the former title master and confident apprentice awaits in Hamilton on Friday night.
Won 28 - 17 v Force • 1st AC, 3rd overall
Much as we are admiring the restoration coaches Dave Rennie and Mark Hammett, South African World Cup winner Jake White is a strong coach of the year candidate. Casting an eye over the Brumbies squad pre-season raised fears for their safety. As per expectations with White, they are stingy on defence but have exceeded expectations in the try scoring stakes. They squashed enough life out of the Force to survive the home side's comeback. Once the power-base of Aussie rugby, the Brumbies - with only four wins last year - are close to the finals for the first time since winning the title in 2004.
Won 27 - 17 v Lions • 1st SAC, 2nd overall
The depleted Stormers did enough to beat the Lions but not to dispel the idea they are the most in need of home ground playoff advantage. Not ones to set the world on fire, they more hose down opponents. With the lowly Cheetahs and Rebels to come, and given the Chiefs' tough finish against the Crusaders and Hurricanes, the Stormers are a chance to finish as the log top dog.
FORWARD OF THE WEEK
Jack Lam - HURRICANES
Partly by a process of elimination... such was the magnitude of the upset in Christchurch and the test-strength class of the Crusaders pack, that a Hurricanes forward had to get the nod. Their tight forwards were shaky in the set pieces, so Lam wins this coveted award over fellow loose forward Bradley Shields. Lam's low-to-the-ground aggro was pivotal to preventing the Crusaders from maintaining a flow. Getting ahead of ourselves, the former Aussie schoolboy rep could enhance his credentials in a match-up with rising All Black Sam Cane - another super-strong openside - in the final round clash in Wellington.
BACK OF THE WEEK
Conrad Smith - HURRICANES
Everyone loves Conrad but it is easy to jump on this bandwagon. The Crusaders' one-dimensional monolith Robbie Fruean was given a masterclass by the All Black No. 13. Smith wields an influence beyond the obvious in the All Blacks and Hurricanes but he also did the obvious on Saturday night by scoring the tries that enabled the Hurricanes - minus backline sparks Cory Jane and TJ Perenara - to shock the Crusaders on home turf. The test veteran has a boyish enthusiasm that even stands out amongst a load of new boys who will look back on fine careers one day knowing they were given a serious boost through early contact with Smith.
THE COACH KILLER
Robbie Robinson - CHIEFS
Highlanders boss Jamie Joseph could only watch in horror as Southlander Robbie Robinson charged on at Forsyth Barr Stadium. Robinson quit the Highlanders and followed his former national under-20 coach Dave Rennie north to the Chiefs but with none of the success, so far, that Aaron Cruden has maintained. Robinson struggles to even start but surprise fullback Andrew Horrell - a converted midfielder - will now have more of a fight on his hands once an ankle injury heals. Robinson was a key contributor as the Chiefs put the Highlanders on the skids.
15 Robbie Robinson (Chiefs)
14 Tim Nanai-Williams (Chiefs)
13 Conrad Smith (Hurricanes)
12 Sonny Bill Williams (Chiefs)
11 Hosea Gear (Highlanders)
10 Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes)
9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Chiefs)
8 Bradley Shields (Hurricanes)
7 Jack Lam (Hurricanes)
6 Adam Thomson (Highlanders)
5 Brodie Retallick (Chiefs)
4 Sam Whitelock (Crusaders)
3 Ben Franks (Crusaders)
2 Andrew Hore (Highlanders)
1 Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders)