Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Super Rugby: Chiefs slight favourites for title

There’s little to separate the four New Zealand contenders and the Lions, but Rennie’s team might just have the edge.
Aaron Cruden's playmaking abilities could be among the keys to the Chiefs winning a third Super Rugby crown. Picture / Getty Images
Aaron Cruden's playmaking abilities could be among the keys to the Chiefs winning a third Super Rugby crown. Picture / Getty Images

There's something about the Chiefs that makes them sit a little aloof from the rest of the title contenders.

Maybe, by just the tiniest margin, they are the Super Rugby title favourites coming into the last weekend of pool play.

It's a near impossible task separating the four New Zealand teams. All have played breathtakingly good football in periods this season.

All of them look well enough equipped to go all the way. But finals football is not necessarily about the best teams triumphing - it is about the teams that best handle the pressure triumphing.

Everything changes this weekend - this is effectively an early knockout round. The questions to ask change. The things to look for are different. Which players can handle themselves in games where the tension doesn't abate?

As far as finals football goes, the Highlanders have shown themselves to be supremely well set up.

In Lima Sopoaga, they have a playmaker whose ability to stay calm and execute is priceless. He's also a nerveless goalkicker.

Aaron Smith helps out with that decision-making and Ben Smith applies magic touches from the back. It's a winning formula, supported by a solid pack that never seem to deviate in effort of accuracy.

It's tempting to say they will defend their title, but that's until the difficulties of their possible schedule are factored in.

They are coming into tomorrow's critical clash with the Chiefs on the back of a tough spell of travel and that might be enough to blunt some of their edge.

And if they don't beat the Chiefs, then they are most likely looking at heading back to South Africa for a quarterfinal.

The Crusaders were on fire against the Rebels last week but all season they have looked brilliant against the Australian and South African sides while struggling against the New Zealand teams. If the Crusaders can't dominate up front, they haven't looked the same team and the Chiefs twice and Highlanders once put them away without too much trouble.

As for the Hurricanes, they have been strong without ever quite reaching the same heights as last season. In these big games, when little things really matter, they might miss both James Broadhurst and Ma'a Nonu who gave them a critical edge last year.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the Lions. For a long period, they were the weakest team in Super Rugby - a shambolic, basketcase of a side who felt like they would never get their act together.

They have their act together now and if they can hold the No 1 ranking and keep themselves at Ellis Park, they will take a lot of beating.

But as much as the Lions are a danger, they don't stack up, despite beating them in Hamilton, as a more likely champion than the Chiefs.

Dave Rennie's team haven't been perfect, but when they have run hot, they have looked almost unbeatable. Their attack game is difficult to contain and with experienced and gifted playmakers such as Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden, they can be confident that they can hold their form under pressure.

They also have the bruising Brodie Retallick to put in the hard yards and boast offloading skills across the park that allow them to build continuity to get behind defences.

As long as they can keep clear heads and play their natural game, they can pick up their third title this year.

Super Rugby playoff questions

1. How much will travel fatigue be a factor? At least two New Zealand teams will likely have to play quarter-finals in South Africa.

2. Home advantage is huge in Super Rugby. Only 20 per cent of playoff games since 1996 have been won by the away side. Is this pattern going to change?

3. How critical will goakicking be?

4. Whichever Australian side qualifies ... will they actually be the surprise package?

5. Will the Lions regret not taking their strongest side to Argentina this weekend?

- NZ Herald

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