Jeff Wilson writes ...
A contrast of performance and potential
July 2, 2013
Ma'a Nonu's impact for the Highlanders has been blunted by a lack of cohesion with those around him © Getty Images
The New Zealand conference has two quite contrasting match-ups this weekend. Two teams in the Crusaders and Chiefs who are almost at the peak of their powers, and two others in the Highlanders and the Hurricanes considering what might have been.
Let's focus on the performance of the Highlanders first, and then the Hurricanes.
In the off-season the Highlanders went looking for an X-factor. What they ended up getting was a lack of chemistry. A team that has promised so much, with such talented and experienced personnel, never reached any of those heights.
The introduction of Tony Woodcock, Brad Thorn and Ma'a Nonu was to be the catalyst for this side making the play-offs. Instead, the loss of Adam Thomson and injuries to Tamati Ellison and Nasi Manu derailed their season before it even started.
In 2012, Thomson and Ellison were the glue for the Highlanders. The introduction of experience was brought in to replace those key losses. Chemistry is so important in any side and without a loose forward trio being dominant and a settled combination inside and outside Nonu, the formula has never been quite right. I certainly believe the performance from Ma'a Nonu hasn't been for a lack of effort, but borne out of frustration and a lack of continuity around him. Nonu hasn't quite found a home where he complements the players that are around him. If anyone played inside Conrad Smith and outside Dan Carter and Aaron Cruden, it'd be quite helpful.
From a team perspective, this is a season the Highlanders will want to forget. The challenge now is to see if they can rebuild this proud franchise given the loss of Hosea Gear, Tamati Ellison and some uncertainty around some senior players, namely Woodcock, Thorn, Nonu and Jamie Mackintosh.
In 2012, the Hurricanes were full of endeavour, exciting to watch and caught a number of teams by surprise. In 2013, the Hurricanes' inconsistencies in performance have again come to the fold and in most cases it has been their inability to beat those teams that are actually just a little bit better.
This is a team that continues to grow. The 'Canes have a balance of experience and talent that needs to find a way to challenge New Zealand's other top sides on a consistent basis. With players like Toomaga-Allen, Dane Coles, the Savea brothers, Brad Shields, TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett, the expectation now for this side should be for them to go to the next level.
I believe their performance against the Highlanders this week will give us a greater indication of where this team is at. Are they mature enough and do they have the belief to challenge the Blues as New Zealand's next best team?
So much is said about the conference system used in Super Rugby. The quality of players the Hurricanes possess and their inability to challenge the Crusaders or Chiefs shows how difficult the New Zealand conference really is. Good sides beat the teams they need to beat and they win at home, but the Hurricanes have suffered crucial defeats at home. Success in Super Rugby sits on a fine line. The Hurricanes are that team that hasn't quite found a way to win ugly.
If ever there was a match-up of heavyweights, it's the Crusaders versus the Chiefs in Christchurch on Friday night. The Crusaders would like to stop the changing of the guard - this isn't just about the teams on the field, it's about bragging rights as an organisation. It is difficult to go back-to-back in any competition. The Crusaders have long been the standard both on and off the field but the Chiefs' determination to take their franchise to that elite level means so much more is at stake.
This is not two teams playing an identical style of football and being coached the same way. There are philosophical differences about the game and it is as much about the coaches as it is about the players. Both franchises understand the importance of momentum going into the play-offs.
The Chiefs and Crusaders have found ways to win games in difficult circumstances. There are games within games and this match has them on all levels. The All Blacks No.10 jersey is a coveted thing. In recent weeks Aaron Cruden and Dan Carter have been at their very best, in some cases out of this world. The great players love these challenges and I can see this game being the best on show.
This is the perfect match for rugby fans.
© ESPN Australia / New Zealand