Patrick McKendry ranks New Zealand’s big movers in the weekend’s Sky Super Rugby Aotearoa.
1. Chiefs (up 1)
(Lost to Blues 19-39, record: 5-3)
No big moves for any team this week, the last of Super Rugby Aotearoa’s round robin, just incremental shifts, and while the Chiefs lost to the Blues at Eden Park ahead of next Saturday’s final in Christchurch, they were competitive for three quarters of it despite fielding a B team. They take top spot as a result.
Biggest mystery: Whether resting their big names – Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown, Brad Weber, Luke Jacobson, Etene Nanai-Seturo et al – was a good move by coach Clayton McMillan.
Problems on the horizon: Sean Wainui’s hamstring injury. Wainui captained the Chiefs against the Blues but may be destined to spend the rest of the week on the sidelines, which may be evidence enough that McMillan made the right decision on the above.
Special mention: Liam Messam rolling back the years at the age of 37. The loose forward played 29 minutes off the bench for his 180th Super Rugby match (his first in two years) and looked pretty good too.
2. Crusaders (down 1)
(Bye, record: 6-2)
The Crusaders had a bye as their supporters and many others around the world digested the news that Pumas loose forward Pablo Matera will be joining them next season. There’s rarely a dull moment at their Rugby Park HQ when Razor is in charge. Meanwhile, they have yet another home final to prepare for.
Biggest mystery: How or why the Crusaders were able to monster the Chiefs scrum in their round-three match in Christchurch but haven’t been able to do the same to any team since.
Problems on the horizon: I’ve been banging on about this since their shambolic post-bye performance against the Highlanders, but how they respond to another break in this week of all weeks will be fascinating.
Special mention: Scott Robertson, the inspirational and charismatic coach once again on the brink of another triumph.
3. Hurricanes (no change)
(Beat Highlanders 41-22, record: 2-6)
Finished on a high with a convincing victory over the Highlanders, a team like the proverbial box of chocolates (you never know what you’re going to get). This time the southerners were the weird sticky strawberry one that is left until last.
Biggest mystery: Whether the Hurricanes can transfer this sort of form into the transtasman competition.
Problems on the horizon: Their pack still looks a little under-powered.
Special mention: No 8 Devan Flanders. Like his namesake Ned from The Simpsons, Flanders, 21, frequently put himself in annoying positions as far as the Highlanders were concerned. With his pace and ball-carrying ability, he’s a talent to watch out for.
4. Blues (up 1)
(Beat Chiefs 39-19, record: 4-4)
Eventually subdued their second-string rivals from down SH1 and in doing so avoided their season, which started so brightly, becoming an embarrassment.
Biggest mystery: Where that early form went. Interestingly, their supporters haven’t given up on them: about 25,000 turned up at Eden Park on Saturday night (admittedly, the Blues v Chiefs women’s game would also have been a drawcard) and the place was buzzing.
Problems on the horizon: The Blues have an attacking star in the form of Caleb Clarke but they’re not getting the best out of him.
Special mention: Fullback Zarn Sullivan, 20, looks a very bright and exciting prospect. Hopefully, given Clarke’s lack of possession and opportunities, he’s just as bright next season.
5. Highlanders (down 1)
(Lost to Hurricanes 22-41, record: 3-5)
Fell at the final hurdle to complete what would have been a maddening season for them and their supporters.
Biggest mystery: The reasons for their inconsistency given their new highly-rated head coach Tony Brown. Youth and a lack of depth, especially in their tight five and midfield? Maybe, but they should have done better overall. They thrashed the Crusaders in Christchurch for goodness’ sake.
Problems on the horizon: They leaked four tries in the second half in Wellington. They’ll lose to a few Aussie sides if they don’t improve their defence for the transtasman competition.
Special mention: Veteran hooker Ash Dixon, a lineout throwing guru and overall good bloke, is fast becoming a Kiwi rugby treasure.
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