Titan 10s clash in race to replace Carter
Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett go head-to-head in the battle to succeed Dan Carter as All Blacks fly-half in Saturday's Super Rugby clash between the Waikato Chiefs and Wellington Hurricanes.
Carter's mastery in the 10 jersey made him a three-time world player of the year and his departure from the international scene has created intense competition in New Zealand with Cruden and Barrett the front-runners.
The Chiefs have been the pace-setters in Super Rugby this year and with Cruden returning to his peak after missing last year's World Cup through injury, the Waikato unit have won six out of seven matches.
Barrett's Hurricanes have also recovered from a woeful start to the season to win five consecutive games after losing the first two.
Sandwiched between the two in the New Zealand conference are the Canterbury Crusaders, who are in Canberra to play old Australian rivals the ACT Brumbies.
The Western Stormers and Golden Lions, who lead the two African conferences, play the lowly Queensland Reds and Southern Kings respectively.
The Chiefs head to Wellington refreshed after a bye and with Cruden commanding the competition's most potent backline, where he is developing a strong partnership with fullback Damian McKenzie.
The pair mix their roles on the field in a way that has helped McKenzie become the tournament’s top try-scorer and overall leading points-scorer.
"Our game plan allows us to both get into first receiver and jump around a bit so I think it's going well," said McKenzie, whose fly-half skills have also been rated highly by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.
- Japanese pride -
With the departure of veteran All Blacks Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith at the end of last year, and a season-ending injury to Nehe Milner-Skudder, Barrett does not enjoy the same level of support as Cruden.
But he has been able to keep the Hurricanes competitive as evidenced by his two tries and four conversions last week when he oversaw a 38-13 win against the Melbourne Rebels.
Defending champions the Otago Highlanders start the weekend at home to the Coastal Sharks, who are looking to recover from their loss to the Auckland Blues at the start of their New Zealand tour last week.
The Highlanders, with Lima Sopoaga another contender for All Blacks fly-half, won five straight before a shock loss to the Reds and have since had a bye to give themselves time to find out what went wrong.
Captain Ben Smith, who missed the Reds surprise, also returns to the starting line-up.
The Sharks made a strong start to the year but after losing their past three matches they have undergone some serious soul-searching this week.
"We had a tough meeting on Monday about the things we got wrong and discussed where we are and where we want to go," said JP Pietersen, who will start at centre against the Highlanders.
The Brumbies will provide a measure of where Australian rugby is at when they host a Crusaders side brimming with confidence after posting six wins on the trot.
The Brumbies and Crusaders were the competition's leading rivals in the early 2000s, but it has been nine years since the Australians last tasted success.
The Jaguares, following a disappointing three-loss swing through New Zealand, will be looking to notch their second win when they play fellow Super Rugby newcomers the Sunwolves in Tokyo.
For the Sunwolves, it represents a chance to regain some lost pride after their embarrassing 92-17 loss to the Central Cheetahs last week.
The Cheetahs are in Melbourne to meet the Rebels, who lie second in the Australian conference, while the Western Force host the NSW Waratahs in Perth.
© 2016 AFP