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June 28, 2012

Preview: New Zealand Conference, 2012 Super Rugby, Round 16

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Preview: New Zealand Conference, 2012 Super Rugby, Round 16

By SANZAR News Service

The first match of the New Zealand Conference in Round 16 sees The Highlanders remain only a point out of the playoff mix, even after getting thoroughly done in their last match. A couple of other results fell nicely for them, but they really need at least one win in the next two matches - the other is against the Reds - before taking their bye.  The Chiefs require two more points to become the first side to offically seal a playoff spot, and have reached those lofty heights solely on merit.

The Crusaders were just hooking into their work when the test break came around, so how they back up will be a matter of real interest to all other contenders over the next three weeks. After that shock loss to the Rebels, the Crusaders took it out on two other sides in their own conference and put 50 points on each - a rare feat in Super rugby.

The Hurricanes went into the break following two five-point wins over Australian teams in sixth spot, helped along by the Sharks suffering a completely unexpected 10-point loss at Johannesburg. They remain the most dangerous attacking team in the competition, nearly 40 points ahead of their nearest rivals (the Crusaders) on the scoring charts and, with eight, they have collected at least three more bonus points than any other side.

Friday 29 June
Highlanders v Chiefs
Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Kick-off (19:35 local, 7:35 GMT, 19:35 NZT, 17:35 NSW/ACT, 9:35 SAT)
R Garratt Williamson
AR Nick Briant
AR Kane McBride
TMO Vinny Munro

The Highlanders have made significant gains this year and are one of only two sides to beat the Chiefs this season. They did that in what has become trademark fashion - a solid first half backed up by a strong finish to get the points. Few sides have better second half records this season and nobody has been as good at turning first-half deficits into recovery wins. Although making the six will be tough from here, anyone who underestimates the Highlanders is guilty of making a serious error.

Individually the Chiefs are a talented bunch, but in combination they are formidable. All egos were parked long ago and they play a precise, accurate game that is based around making few errors and capitalising on the chances they create to maximum effect. Once the opposing line is broken, they take advantage in the most direct manner and some outstanding team tries have resulted. The forwards do a lot of spade work to provide that exciting backline with good ball, and the fast men are making sure that work is not wasted. However you want to dress it up, the Chiefs are a very good team and are playing some excellent rugby.

The Highlanders will be buoyed by the form of their returning All Blacks, as all did well in their appearances. Andrew Hore had a good series, performing strongly in all areas and having no worries with his set piece work. The Highlanders will need more of the same on Friday. Aaron Smith was a stand-out, showing that his Super rugby form is the true indication of his ability. There was nothing he did not do well, and a long test career beckons - so now he has to bring that form back to Dunedin. Hosea Gear got fewer chances but scored a tremendous try at Hamilton, and his decision to stay in New Zealand looks set to pay off in a big way. He can now play with the freedom that comes after making a tough call, which only makes him more dangerous than ever.

The Chiefs also saw their All Blacks go well, with Brodie Retallick making a strong start to his test career. Like Smith from the Highlanders, he showed that he could comfortably lift impressive Super rugby form to the next stage. Sonny Bill Williams also had his best month in an All Black jersey, displaying any number of good touches as well as the raw power we all know he's got. The sideshow that has evolved around his future plans cannot be allowed to cloud his immediate focus, because he is playing extremely well at present. It seems like a couple of years ago that Asaeli Tikoirotuma scored four tries against the Blues, but it was actually in his last outing. He showed real speed, good awareness and the ability to finish chances created in a variety of ways - hallmarks of a good winger.

Saturday 30 June
Crusaders v Hurricanes
AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Kick-off (19:35 local, 7:35 GMT, 19:35 NZT, 17:35 NSW/ACT, 9:35 SAT)
R Bryce Lawrence
AR Nick Briant
AR Kane McBride
TMO Vinny Munro

Now firmly entrenched in fourth spot, although with only slim hopes of catching the Chiefs in the New Zealand conference, the Crusaders are still looking good for at least one home playoff match. They had plenty of players involved in the test series, so the key men are well in match trim, but injuries to some of their stars must be worrying Todd Blackadder just now.

The defence of the Hurricanes, which had been a bit soft at times in recent matches, hardened up at Sydney when they spent long periods penned in their own quarter but gave up no tries. The Hurricanes have already achieved a lot more than most expected in 2012, but they have the potential to add to that record in the next few weeks.

Crusaders prop Wyatt Crockett will play his 100th match on Saturday night, joining an elite band of colleagues to have reached the milestone. After being named in the test squad but seeing no action, he will surely be all fire and brimstone in this match. The reserve hooker, Quentin MacDonald, has played little rugby but when pitched into the Highlanders game as an early replacement he looked like a man who had been on top of his game all year. A highly impressive all-round effort showed him to be an ideal squad player - always ready to deliver when called upon. Tom Taylor has impressed this season and his goal-kicking has been as good as anyone can offer, so Carter's absence should not be a crippling blow. Whether the home backline is quite as effective remains to be seen, but the Crusaders have a more than handy man filling the No 10 jersey.

Brad Shields was something of a surprise selection in the wider All Black training group, although he missed the cut when the team was trimmed down. His form for the Hurricanes, generally off the bench, has been strong enough but he faces a new challenge this week with a start at No 8 and his decision-making will have to be quick and accurate if the scrum comes under pressure. It's another step in his learning process, and one that will be closely watched. Chris Eaton also has a job to do at set piece; like Shields, he will need to make good decisions under pressure this week. Conrad Smith was outstanding during the test series and his calm control will be a big factor in the Hurricanes performance; there are few better players in world rugby and whatever attacking threats his team pose will certainly be built on the centre's ability to open a tight defensive screen.