Eight rounds into the competition and it’s looking increasingly likely that a New Zealand team will finish it as champions. The only difficulty is predicting which of the Chiefs, Crusaders, Hurricanes or Highlanders will win it.
The Kiwi teams are all in the top eight, with six points separating the competition leading Chiefs (29 points) and the seventh-placed Highlanders (23). The Crusaders and Hurricanes, on 27 and 25 points respectively, have amassed more than the second-placed Stormers (24), but due to the vagaries of the conference system, the South Africa team – who will not play any New Zealand teams in the round-robin – enjoy an elevated and privileged position.
That is an anomaly better saved for another day, but for now it’s time to celebrate the Super Rugby form in this country which is thriving despite – or perhaps because of – the high of the World Cup victory in November.
Even the Blues, chronic under-achievers in recent years and who haven’t won a game away from New Zealand in almost 24 months, have impressed at times. They are 11th on the table and unlikely to make the playoffs due to the excellence of their New Zealand rivals, but have improved under Tana Umaga and the statistics show they are one of the better attacking teams.
They fought back at the end against the Sharks with Rieko Ioane’s converted try at Eden Park last weekend – making hard work of the win despite enjoying a huge possession advantage – but the visitors defended well and credit must go to the Blues’ determination to find a way through.
However, the biggest indicator of the gulf between the New Zealand teams and the others at the weekend was the Crusaders’ 32-15 win over the Jaguares in Christchurch, a performance in which Todd Blackadder’s men first blunted the visitors’ set piece and then eviscerated them with their offloading game.
The Crusaders, playing with an esprit de corps they haven’t haven’t enjoyed in years, then put up a defensive wall which put a blowtorch on the untested playmaking combination of Gonzalo Bertranou and Juan Martin Hernandez, something the pair never recovered from.
The sight of the experienced Hernandez missing badly with an attempted a dropped goal in the first half with his side well behind was an indication he felt there was no way through.
After a poor start the Hurricanes are beginning to show signs of their attacking verve from last year. They conceded the first try to the Rebels in Melbourne at the weekend, but coasted to a 38-13 victory. They scored six tries to two, but the platform for the win was built on their defence. They missed 15 tackles in total compared with the Rebels’ 28, and their line-speed ensured the home side struggled to get anything going.
The Chiefs, who have scored nearly 40 points a game on average, had the bye at the weekend before their blockbuster against the Hurricanes in Wellington this Saturday.
The Highlanders, too, had a chance to catch their breath before playing the Sharks in Dunedin on Friday.
Surprisingly, perhaps, one of the most notable statistics from the typically attacking Hurricanes and Highlanders – last year’s finalists – are their performances in the set piece. The Highlanders have one of the best scrums in the competition, the Hurricanes one of the best lineouts.
It’s that all-round excellence the rest of the competition is struggling to catch up with.
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Carries (per match on average) – 126.9
Passes – 172
Ruck success 96%
Ave time in possession: 18.54min
Lineouts lost: 0.9
Clean breaks: 15.9
Tackle success: 87%
Scrum success: 95%
Lineouts lost: 0.9
NZ v SA 1/Aus teams:
Chiefs W 4 L 1
Lost to Lions (round 2)
Blues W 2 D 1 L 0
Drew with Reds (round 4)
Highlanders W 4 L 1
Lost to Reds (round 7)
Hurricanes W 4 L 1
Lost to Brumbies (round 1)
Crusaders W 5 L 0
Total: Won 21 Lost 3 Drew 1