Three rounds in we break down the best and worst performing teams in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Emerging from lockdown fears persisted the Blues would lose momentum gained during their four victories away from home. This was the turning point earlier in the season – the trip to South Africa where the Blues knocked off the Bulls and previously-undefeated Stormers to source newfound confidence. Africa was also where they amended their shaky lineout by training on days off. Rather than regress into the frustrating team of old following the break the Blues have instead improved, and against stronger opposition during Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Beauden Barrett's introduction at fullback has added another dimension of calm poise that has seen the Blues close out matches they would often lose. While many of the backline shine, the forward pack deserves credit for their resurgence. The bye comes at a good time for the Blues after they were almost run down by the Highlanders in the second half last week. The litmus test that is the Crusaders in Christchurch the following week will reveal just how good this team can be. Whether he plays that match or not Dan Carter's influence is already shining through.
Standout players: Patrick Tuipulotu, Hoskins Sotutu, Caleb Clarke, Rieko Ioane, Otere Black, Alex Hodgman
Question: Will we see Beauden Barrett at first five-eighth this season?
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The spin: The sooner Christchurch builds a covered stadium, the better for all rugby enthusiasts. The Crusaders' first home match of SRA is not a spectacle anyone would rush to watch again. Defence was largely the order of the day – the Crusaders making 168 tackles to the Chiefs' 93 to hold on with 38 per cent possession for their second victory after the first-round bye. In much better conditions the Crusaders showed their attacking potential by scoring five tries to one in their opening win over the Hurricanes in Wellington, and they should therefore relish this week's trip to Dunedin's roofed arena.
Sevu Reece and Will Jordan have been lethal, while Richie Mo'unga is warming into his work. Codie Taylor is relishing the captaincy responsibility in Scott Barrett's absence but the Crusaders will miss Cullen Grace, the impressive hard-hitting blindside who fractured his thumb against the Chiefs and is set to be sidelined after surgery. These Crusaders are not unbeatable, but having last lost in Christchurch in 2016 they remain odds on favourites for the inaugural title.
Standout players: Codie Taylor, Cullen Grace, Will Jordan, Sevu Reece, Joe Moody
Question: Is Cullen Grace the blindside flanker the All Blacks have been searching for?
The spin: Not since the pre-Dave Rennie era have the Chiefs fell into a slump such as this. Three losses at home for the first time in 18 years; three straight losses to start SRA leaves a mountain to climb. While little separates the five Kiwi teams on any given day, anxiety must be mounting in Hamilton. Two tries in three outings underlines the odd attacking struggles for a team stacked with game breakers. The lineout, stripped of several experienced locks, continues to struggle at 81 per cent.
With Sam Cane back on deck it's surely only a matter of time before the Chiefs click but at present they are forcing options that aren't there. Twice last week Aaron Cruden made breaks only to throw offloads to Crusaders defenders. The depth of the pack is undergoing a major examination that, to date, they have not passed. A little more patience, set piece continuity and ball security would go a long way but it is already desperate times against the fellow winless Hurricanes this weekend.
Standout players: Lachlan Boshier, Sean Wainui
Question: Why can't the Chiefs score tries? They needed 72 minutes under the Dunedin roof to cross through Anton Lienert-Brown and have only managed one since.
The spin: This season was always going to be a grind following the irreplaceable loss of Beauden Barrett and the late coaching switch with John Plumtree joining the All Blacks. Without Jordie Barrett, who is expected to return for the Chiefs this week, the Hurricanes weren't in the same class as the Blues and Crusaders, SRA's leading contenders. Lineout struggles have seemingly forced shots at goal rather than having the confidence to keep pressure on and kick for the corner. And on defence, Vince Aso's tendency to rush out of the line from centre has been exposed on occasions. Jordie Barrett's return will provide a huge boost – it was his clutch kick that sealed the last Hurricanes win, ironically over the Chiefs in Hamilton back on March 13.
Prior to his shoulder issue Barrett assumed much of the playmaking responsibility which allowed Jackson Garden-Bachop to settle. Dane Coles is everywhere but he could use more support from the undermanned pack. Ardie Savea's return from a significant knee injury has been subdued but a trot for Wellington club side Ories during the bye weekend should have him primed to perform.
Standout players: Dane Coles, TJ Perenara, Du'Plessis Kirifi
Question: Is there more to Carlos Spencer's immediate mid-season departure than the Covid-19 financial constraints? Mark Hammett will at least see out the season at the Highlanders.
The spin: A vastly improved unit since lockdown. Fitter, smarter and more resilient, the coaching staff deserves much of the credit for targeted improvements. The big shift has come from the Highlanders pack, and they will need to be at their very best for the Crusaders this week. At home against the Chiefs in their round one victory the Highlanders rolling maul destroyed the visitors. While the Blues had this aspect covered last week, it still remains a weapon close to the line.
Mitchell Hunt has delivered moments of magic in Josh Ioane's absence but the inexperienced back three remains a concern. Nehe Milner-Skudder is not due to debut for the Highlanders until next week, leaving concerns after the Blues picked apart the backfield in the first half at Eden Park. Any team that underestimates the Highlanders is in for a shock – this team has the attitude to compete with anyone on their day.
Standout players: Ash Dixon, Aaron Smith, Marino Mikaele Tu'u, Josh Dickson
Question: Hoskins Sotutu or Marino Mikaele Tu'u for All Blacks No 8?