New Zealand worried

INJURIES to All Blacks head honchos Kieran Read and Ben Smith hogged the headlines in the latest Super Rugby round as a rugby nation drew its frosty breath.

Smith should bounce back after a couple of weeks after rolling his ankle in the Highlander’s impressive hammering of the Stormers.

But Read’s broken right thumb on Crusaders duty in Bloemfontein on Sunday must have caused a few more jitters in Steve Hansen’s household.

The All Blacks captain is expected to be out for six weeks – with the first test against the British and Irish Lions just eight weeks away.

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson hit a nerve when, asked about the prognosis for Read, who had surgery to his right wrist after the All Blacks’ tour late last year.

“I think the whole of New Zealand is worried,” Robertson said.

That anxiety will be heightened by the fact that veteran backrower Jerome Kaino had minor knee surgery last Friday and also faces a race against time to be fit for the Lions series.

The latest injury toll overshadowed the other worrying news of the weekend – the Chiefs’ increasingly wobbly form.

A New Zealand side failing to bank a bonus point against the Sunwolves is the rugby equivalent of looking a gift horse in the mouth.

It’s an even more egregious omission when you consider the Chiefs were playing 13 men at the end of a miserable night in Hamilton on Saturday.

There were no high-fives in the Chiefs’ changing shed with co-captain Sam Cane admitting the mood was funereal.

“Just judging by everybody’s body language, you don’t have to say too much,” Cane said. “I think everyone’s a little bit disappointed and got a feeling we should have done a little bit better…

“But geez, you’ve got to give it to them the way they defended in that back half of the game.”

Damian McKenzie’s two tries spared the Chiefs’ blushes somewhat, but there was little else to ease the feeling that the Chiefs, who were singularly unimpressive in a scratchy 16-7 win over the Western Force, have slipped a gear in the past few weeks.

Read’s broken thumb took the gloss off the unbeaten Crusaders’ convincing 48-21 win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

The Crusaders brim with All Blacks, but it was a first-year rookie who took man of the match honours on the high veldt with left wing George Bridge, grabbing his first Super Rugby hat-trick.

Much was made of the need to find a big name replacement when behemoth Nemani Nadolo left for France.

Bridge, a 22-year-old who played for the New Zealand under-20 team in 2015 and scored five tries in his maiden Mitre 10 Cup season with Canterbury, has produced the goods.

With pace, swerve and verve, Bridge has crossed the chalk seven times in 2017 to be third on the top try-scorers list behind Hurricanes tyros Vince Aso (10) and Ngani Laumape (9).

There were touches of class in two of his tries against the Cheetahs, especially one attack launched from the halfway line.

David Havili, another non-All Black having a consistent campaign for the Crusaders, also scored twice.

Sam Whitelock, who is impressing with his captaincy skills at the Crusaders, was sinbinned in the final quarter when his elbow connected with an opponent’s face at a lineout.

It has rapidly gone from bad to worse for the Stormers in New Zealand.

Beaten just once before the trip over, the Cape Town club has been hammered by the Highlanders after an earlier big loss to the Crusaders.

The Highlanders’ attack hit its straps for the first time in many weeks with Fijian firepower to the fore on Friday.

Wings Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osborne both bagged two tries with Japan-bound Osborne also chipping in with an exquisite assist.

The Highlanders do not attract the same fanfare as some other Kiwi franchises, but they have been steadily building under Tony Brown’s guidance and this was their fifth consecutive win.

But talisman Ben Smith was unable to make the plane for South Africa, with a moon boot replacing his usual adidas footwear for the next fortnight.

Kiwi coach Daryl Gibson’s job is safe at the Waratahs for another week after 19 points by Bernard Foley gave the Sydney under-achievers a 29-26 derby win over the ill-starred Queensland Reds.

The upset of the round came in Port Elizabeth in a contest between two teams on Super Rugby’s death row – the Southern Kings and the Rebels.

With South Africa set to shed two Super Rugby teams and Australia about to jettison one, both sides had plenty to play for. But the Rebels looked like condemned men while the Kings scored some stylish tries to hammer the Australians 44-3 and nab the third win of the season.

The Western Force, also playing for their Super Rugby future, battled gamely but lost 24-15 to the Lions in Perth.

* STUFF

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