Halfbacks key in Kiwi clash

The influence of the respective halfback combinations will be a key factor in Saturday’s semi-final between the Hurricanes and Chiefs in Wellington, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

This highly anticipated clash once again brings us a contest between the two men competing for the All Blacks No 10 jersey.

Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden have both been in sublime form for the Hurricanes and Chiefs respectively this season, with both pivots also playing instrumental roles in last weekend's impressive quarter-final wins.

Barrett, particularly, produced a masterful showing as he maturely marshalled the Hurricanes’ play in atrocious conditions during the playoff game against the Sharks, and his ability to alternate between clever kicking and incisive attack is sure to be of utmost importance to the hosts once again this weekend.

At scrumhalf, TJ Perenara also delivered his finest performance of the season against the Sharks, with the nuggety No 9 creating two brilliant tries, while also executing his basics with aplomb.

For the Chiefs, Cruden has added an attacking edge to proceedings all season, and his ability to spark a dangerous backline that includes the likes of James Lowe and Damian McKenzie has been key to the Hamilton-based side’s success with ball in hand all season.

Interestingly, the Chiefs have opted to rotate Tawera Kerr-Barlow in at scrumhalf for this clash, with his physicality and defensive strength ensuring he cracked the nod ahead of Brad Weber, who will look to inject pace into the game later on.

Kerr-Barlow will have a big job to do in ensuring his service complements the Chiefs’ attack, while also remaining vigilant on defence around the inside channels where the Hurricanes’ strike runners are always dangerous.

This match should be an enthralling contest in the sense that the Hurricanes and Chiefs have been two of most entertaining attacking sides to watch all season. They remain in the top five of all teams in terms of tries scored, clean breaks, metres made and defenders beaten.

There’s no reason to believe that either side will move away from this approach on Saturday, and there is no doubt that they’ll both be hoping that the weather plays its part in providing the conditions for running rugby in Wellington.

The Chiefs’ backline has been boosted by the return from injury of exciting centre Seta Tamanivalu, while in the Canes camp they’ll be desperately hoping that inspirational captain Dane Coles overcomes a rib injury in time to take up his place in the starting lineup.

When the two sides met earlier this season in Wellington, just one point was the difference, and it’s likely to be another closely fought affair between the two like-minded sides.

Ultimately, it’s the team that executes with superior accuracy on the day that is likely to come out on top, and in this regard the decision-making and precision of the halfbacks could well be a defining factor.

Overall: Hurricanes 14, Chiefs 12, Draw 1
In Wellington: Hurricanes 9, Chiefs 5

– The Hurricanes have won nine of their last 11 games against the Chiefs on home turf, although they lost their last such encounter by one point in round nine earlier this season.
– The Hurricanes have lost all six of their playoff games against fellow New Zealand teams in Super Rugby, including a 14-10 defeat to the Chiefs in 2009.
– The Chiefs have previously contested four semi-finals in Super Rugby history, winning each of the last three.
– Each of the Chiefs' last four away games in New Zealand have been won by a team trailing at half-time.
– The Hurricanes have scored more than twice as many points as they've conceded in their last six Super Rugby games (197-88), of which they have won all of them.
– Aaron Cruden has six try assists this season, more than any other player in the competition.
– The Hurricanes have a points difference of +99 in the final 20 minutes of their games this season, the best figure of any team.
– 55% (36/66) of the Hurricanes' tries this season have come from first-phase possession, the highest rate in the competition.
– Beauden Barrett (193) and Damian McKenzie (190) are both within reach of becoming the first and second players this season to score 200 points.
– Ardie Savea made 11 tackles in last weekend’s quarter-final to take his season tally to 176, second only behind the Chiefs' Sam Cane (180).
Source: Opta

Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres gained Most tackles
Hurricanes Beauden Barrett (193) Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara (7) Beauden Barrett (685) Ardie Savea (176)
Chiefs Damian McKenzie (190) Damian McKenzie (10) Damian McKenzie (1,235) Sam Cane (180)

Hurricanes – 15 James Marshall, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Willis Halaholo, 11 Jason Woodward, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields, 5 Michael Fatialofa, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Ben May, 2 Dane Coles (c)/Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Loni Uhila.
Subs: 16 Ricky Riccitelli/Leni Apisai, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Mike Kainga, 19 Mark Abbott, 20 Callum Gibbins, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Vince Aso, 23 Julian Savea.

Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Sam McNicol, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Tom Sanders, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Atu Moli, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Mitchell Graham, 19 Lachlan Boshier, 20 Michael Leitch, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Toni Pulu, 23 Shaun Stevenson.

Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Paul Williams (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

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Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

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Craig Lewis