Chiefs search for missing sparkComment on this story
Sydney - From bidding for an unprecedented hat-trick of Super Rugby titles to merely keeping their dwindling playoffs hopes alive, the once-mighty Waikato Chiefs' decline has been as rapid as it has been puzzling.
Bottom of the New Zealand conference and ninth overall, the Chiefs could see their title defence end in front of home fans in Hamilton on Friday when they take on a ravenous Hurricanes side who humiliated them 45-8 in May.
Having lost four of their last six games, the Chiefs' struggles have underlined the strength of New Zealand rugby, with all five of the conference's teams still in contention for the post-season with two rounds to play.
“So you drop slightly and other teams raise their game and you get the results we have had,” assistant coach Wayne Smith told New Zealand media.
“Again at the weekend we could have won that game, needed to win it but we didn't quite have it in us in the end.”
The Chiefs led at halftime against the Highlanders in Dunedin, but were blown away in the third quarter before a two-try rally proved too-little-too-late.
A win over a galvanised Hurricanes, who have doggedly kept their season alive with a backs-to-the-wall win over the Canterbury Crusaders last week, and over the Blues in the final round, may also prove fruitless if other results do not go their way.
A seemingly unstoppable force over the past two seasons, the team's failure to close out winning positions has hurt them, while a porous defence has too often left them playing catch-up against emboldened title rivals.
The set-piece has also let them down, but Smith was at a loss to explain the general slip in standards.
“Outcome is always a complex thing and it's hard to put your finger on any one thing, but what I do know is that it can turn around really quickly,” said Smith, a former assistant to World Cup-winning All Blacks coach Graham Henry.
“I've been in a Crusaders team that did that. Don't know why it turned around but it did and went from being hopeless to being unbeatable in a short space of time so I know it's only going to take one good result and we'll be back on the horse - but it's getting pretty late in the season.”
More than a month has passed since the trouncing in Wellington but it would remain fresh in the mind of most Chiefs' fans.
“It challenges your own personal pride in what you're doing so I think it is a huge game from that perspective,” Smith added.
“It's our track this week, in front of our people against a team that gave us a hiding last time out and if you can't get up for that you won't get up for anything.
“We've got to make sure everyone leaves the stadium on Friday night, saying, 'yes, the Chiefs have really got that mana, got that spirit'.”