Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Champion's chance for Chiefs

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

Strikepower will be the theme for tonight's shootout at the Cake Tin as the two most expressive New Zealand sides square off.

The Chiefs will become regular season winners with a bonus-point victory while the Hurricanes need the same result to give themselves any chance of qualifying for the playoffs.

A season record crowd of more than 20,000 have bought tickets, even with murmurs of dodgy weather, while a massive global television audience will tune in to catch plenty of anticipated attacking clout.

Backlines run by the talented Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett should not disappoint.

They will express themselves but you figure the Chiefs won't neglect their work up front; they'll be more at ease than the Hurricanes about keeping play close to the pack for sustained periods.

The Chiefs will look to choke their hosts at set-piece, slow their rhythm and not let them get into the frenetic patches of rugby where they can be so lethal.

Both teams were dusted at set-piece by the Crusaders and suffered for large parts of their duels. Somehow, the Canes managed to sneak away with a victory while the Chiefs missed out late.

The Chiefs have altered half their side but still look more capable of a settled lineout with skipper Craig Clarke back from ill health and holding their scrum tight.

"The mood is good, they're highly motivated and there's an edge about them," coach Dave Rennie said of his side.

For much of this season the coaching staff at the Chiefs have tried to pit their players against each other, to create more competition for places rather than operate a top flight and a row of deputies.

It helped at the start of the year when they lost their frontline props and Richard Kahui's shoulder failed him again. The replacements have done the business.

Tonight is the turn of men like Hika Elliot to hit his lineout targets and control the scrum, Tanerau Latimer to continue his loose forward toil, Kane Thompson to run the back of the scrum and Andrew Horrell to call the shots from the back field.

Strong performances will give those players extra clout when the staff sit down after next week's rest to pick the strongest semifinals combination.

The Canes have sharpened their sting with Victor Vito in the boot of the scrum and Cory Jane restored to the wing after a lengthy spell out with an ankle injury. They are fine players but they haven't felt the pulse of rugby for some time, and the Hurricanes will miss the impact an injured TJ Perenara would have given them from halfback.

The deeper the season goes, the more the Chiefs are getting from their halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow.

He gained a further boost when he was picked for the initial All Black squad and his game management seems to have moved up a shade. Kerr-Barlow has worked on his pass and variety in his game, while his power and cover defence are top quality.

Canes halfback Chris Eaton has been troubled by injury and either he or his deputy, Frae Wilson, will feel some heat from the combative Kerr-Barlow who will attempt to disrupt and pester possession, getting to the danger in the Canes backline.

Two months ago, the Chiefs dealt to the Canes 33-14 in Hamilton with a performance the visitors felt was the best they'd encountered this year. Champion sides repeat those sorts of efforts; tonight is the time for the Chiefs to earn that accolade.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

Stats provided by

© Copyright 2017, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 28 May 2017 18:11:13 Processing Time: 408ms