Super Rugby is back and, as the British & Irish Lions prepare to take on the All Blacks in 2017, we have got a keen eye trained on the competition and focused on the five New Zealand franchises.
Chiefs, Glorious Chiefs
After romping past the Western Force in round five, the Chiefs turned some heads in Super Rugby.
But the way they backed up that performance against the Brumbies was arguably even more impressive – putting six tries past the Aussie powerhouses to move top of the standings.
Dave Rennie’s side, champions in 2012 and 2013, have now won in South Africa, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia in successive weeks – a staggering feat.
It’s hard to know where to start with these Chiefs who are putting teams to the sword despite the absences of high-profile stars like Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, their first choice props and Tawera Kerr-Barlow.
Christian Cullen singled out the ‘smiling assassin’ Damian McKenzie last week as a potential All Black and head coach Steven Hansen is clearly impressed after name-checking the youngster again in a radio interview last week.
Regular readers of our reviews will know that we singled out McKenzie early on but there are others that have caught the eye.
Winger James Lowe was unstoppable against the Brumbies with two tries – while also creating Brad Weber’s length of the field team score, Japan captain Michael Leitch has settled straight back into the back row and Charles Ngatai at inside centre remains the heir apparent to Ma’a Nonu.
But there is one man that deserves a paragraph to himself for his showing against the Brumbies on Saturday.
Aaron steals a march on his rivals
After five rounds of Super Rugby action many commentators had Lima Sopoaga marginally ahead of Aaron Cruden in the race to inherit Dan Carter’s No.10 jersey.
After round six it’s hard to see how anyone can look past Cruden – who did it all for the Chiefs in their destruction of the Australian powerhouse.
His distribution was superb from hand and foot, exchanging passes with Lowe for the Chiefs’ second score and bursting clear himself to feed Tom Sanders for their fifth.
But the cute kick to the corner – off his left foot no less – for Lowe’s second was the pick of the bunch.
Some critics have pointed to the fact that it is McKenzie, not Cruden, kicking the goals for the Chiefs but that is set to change following their bye week according to coach Dave Rennie and then the All Blacks No.10 shirt should be his to lose.
Don’t forget about Ryan
While the Chiefs demand praise for their showings – elsewhere the Kiwi franchises are all starting to hit some form.
The seven-time champion Crusaders tamed the Lions in the second half and All Black centre Ryan Crotty was the star of the show with a hat-trick.
The centre – who has 15 All Black caps to his name already – only made his injury return in round five but has hit the ground running for Todd Blackadder’s side.
Ngatai and George Moala have a head start on him in the battle for the new-look All Black midfield but if with performances like last Saturday – Crotty will be giving Hansen headaches before long.
And that is without mentioning Rene Ranger whose stop start season for the Blues got back on track with a fine showing in the centres against the Jaguares – creating Ihaia West’s crucial score with a fine run and prone offload.
A Squire ready to become a star
The no-name Highlanders pack took Super Rugby by storm last season and this year there is a new addition to those ranks.
Liam Squire was struggling for regular game time at the Chiefs and has moved to Dunedin where the No.8 has started to tear it up.
And while Kieran Read has not missed a beat since the World Cup for the Crusaders – Squire has certainly turned heads for the reigning champions.
Nasi Manu was always going to be tough to replace but Squire has done an admirable job and the 25-year-old was at it again against the Force this weekened – amassing a game high 15 tackles in the victory .
Any other business
The Kiwi sides are looking increasingly strong in Super Rugby – they have four of the top nine sides in the standings.
Elsewhere the Melbourne Rebels have now won four of their first six to match the Brumbies in Australia – a franchise best start for them.
While the Stormers and Sharks lead the way in South Africa – the new boys the Sunwolves were denied a first win of the season by the Kings – who themselves claimed their first win since returning to Super Rugby.