The Chiefs' title defence is hanging by a very thin thread as they face the Hurricanes in a must-win clash in Hamilton on Friday.
The Chiefs' Super Rugby title defence is hanging by a very thin thread as they face the Hurricanes in a must-win clash at Waikato Stadium on Friday.
This is essentially a knock-out game as the losers in Hamilton will almost certainly miss out on the play-offs.
Lying ninth in the overall standings, four points off the cutoff, the Chiefs must win big and do the same again against the Blues at Eden Park next week if they are to have any hopes of making the knock-out stages.
Although they current sit in fifth spot, the Hurricanes too must get a positive result in their last regular season game before their ill-timed bye next week to avoid relying on results elsewhere to save them.
Massive pressure on both sides then.
The harsh reality, though, is that the Chiefs are set to fall short of a third straight title. A bonus-point win on Friday – which is essential – seems highly unlikely considering the result the last time these teams met, a little over a month ago, when the 'Canes demolished the champs in 45-point drubbing.
Consistency is a key ingredient when challenging for the Super Rugby crown and it has been sorely lacking this term. From the outside it's easy to criticise Dave Rennie for his selection methodology, which has seen six or seven changes being made to the starting XV almost every week.
The absence of Sonny Bill Williams and Aaron Cruden's long injury lay-off robbed the team of it's creative core for much of the campaign and the lack of continuity has meant that they simply have not looked like the team with the polished attack that romped to back-to-back titles.
“A lot of effort went in to winning two and I'm not so sure that conscious desire to win three has been as evident,” admitted assistant coach Tom Coventry this week.
“I still think it lies latent in us. I see it in us when we train and I've seen it in glimpses this year but not consistently.”
That's not to say that the Chiefs won't play a big part in deciding the make up of the play-offs. It's testament to the competitiveness of the New Zealand conference that the Chiefs lie last in the group yet are still in with a shout of finishing in the top six overall. Crucially, over the next fortnight they face two other play-off hopefuls as the Blues too could sneak in through the back door.
On home soil, and in the official farewell game for a handful of stalwarts – Tanerau Latimer, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Bundee Aki and Mils Muliaina – the hosts will no doubt mount more of a challenge than the disaster at the Cake Tin, where they were carved up by Alapati Leiua, Faifili Levave, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett and Andre Taylor.
It's worth noting that Levave, Leiua and Taylor are missing this time. Dangerous as the 'Canes have been this season, a midfield of Tim Bateman and Hadleigh Parkes simply doesn't compare to the combo of Conrad Smith (who is still nursing a broken thump) and Leiua.
The Hurricanes do arrive in pretty hot form, though, having kept their own hopes alive thanks to last week's narrow win over the Crusaders.
Coach Mark Hammett will also be a massively relieved man after hookers Dane Coles and Ash Dixon came through training unscathed on Wednesday. As the start of the week all three hookers were out of action, and things were looking grim.
Hammett insists the fact the game could be the last of their season – and of his tenure before he leaves for Cardiff – hasn't been a factor in their preparation and has urged his troops not to get carried away by what is at stake.
Fly-half Beauden Barrett – whose destination for next year remains unclear – says the players are determined not to let their hard work go to waste after fighting back from a miserable start to their campaign.
“After three losses right at the start, we were really under the pump,” he told AAP
“To be in this situation now, we've got a great opportunity. Emotionally we're going to be up for it. It's just about doing the basics well and the intensity will be there.”
Form: The Chiefs come into the match on a three-game losing streak having gone down to the Hurricanes, Waratahs and Highlanders on consecutive weekends. The defending champions have won five of their seven home games so far this season. The Hurricanes beat the Crusaders 16-9 last week but have been unable to string back-to-back wins together since April. The Hurricanes and the Chiefs have met 23 times in Super Rugby history, with the Hurricanes winning 12 of those matches, the Chiefs 10, and one ending in a draw.
2014: Hurricanes won 45-8 in Wellington
2013: Chiefs won 34-22 in Hamilton
2013: Chiefs won 17-12 in Wellington
2012: Hurricanes won 28-25 in Wellington
2012: Chiefs won 33-14 in Hamilton
Prediction: It's a tough one to call because we all know what the Chiefs are capable off, yet the 'Canes won so convincing in the last clash between the two just a few weeks ago. It'll be much, much tighter this time. Hurricanes by less than seven.
Chiefs: 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 13 Tim Nanai-Williams, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Mike Fitzgerald, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Nick Barrett, 19 Matt Symons, 20 Tevita Koloamatangi, 21 Agustine Pulu, 22 Gareth Anscombe, 23 Bundee Aki.
Hurricanes: 15 Matt Proctor, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Tim Bateman, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Brad Shields, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Jack Lam, 5 Blade Thomson, 4 Jeremy Thrush (c), 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Reggie Goodes, 19 James Broadhurst, 20 Adam Hill, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Cardiff Vaega, 23 James Marshall.
Date: Friday, July 4
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19.35 local (17.35 GMT)
Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)