After showing championship resolve in their seventh straight win, the table-topping Chiefs seem securely on an inexorable march towards the playoffs.

But heading into Friday night's showdown with the Highlanders in Hamilton, a case can be made that Dave Rennie's men are due for a mid-season stumble.

After romping their way to the head of the pack by averaging more than 40 points in their opening six games, they barely did enough to beat the Blues, sneaked past the Hurricanes and were even less convincing in Friday night's nail-biter against the Sharks.

An average margin of victory that stood at 22.4 after their first six games has in the past three weeks averaged just three, as the scintillating attack that marked the start of the season has been nullified by better defences and errors of their own making.


Health has been a factor in the downward trend. While they have suffered injuries all season, the Chiefs' attacking axis had largely remained intact until their trip to New Plymouth, when Charlie Ngatai and James Lowe were absent and Seta Tamanivalu was forced off at halftime, seeing the leaders record their lowest total of the season.

And weariness could be playing a part, too. Damian McKenzie and Aaron Cruden were both ineffective against the Sharks after spurring their side all season.

The playmaking pair would be forgiven for feeling fatigued, given McKenzie has played all 720 available minutes and Cruden has missed only 35. But fortunately for Rennie's men, after they clear the Highlanders hurdle, the remainder of the campaign provides plenty of opportunities for rest and recovery.

The Chiefs will soon enjoy their second bye and, after hosting the Rebels and visiting the lowly Waratahs, the international break is looming. While they will be sure to lose a handful of players to All Blacks duty, a month without match action for the majority of the squad may not be the worst scenario as Rennie plots a tilt for a third title.

With an opportunity to recuperate and with time for reinforcements to arrive, the Chiefs can then set their sights on closing out a tricky end to the campaign when they take on the Crusaders in Fiji before trips to the Reds and Highlanders.

The relentless form of Todd Blackadder's side - winners of seven in a row after dropping their opener against the Chiefs - means the front-runners will be allowed no slips if they wish to secure home advantage throughout the playoffs, a factor that proved crucial in their first two championships.

But having in recent weeks illustrated an equal aptitude for grinding out wins and blowing away inferior opposition, there's no reason to think a squad refreshed by a few free weekends will struggle to end the season the way they began.