Beauden Barrett versus Aaron Cruden warrants top billing when positional clashes are measured for the Hurricanes-Chiefs Super Rugby semi-final.
But Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd reckons it’s worth looking one place further in, at the collision of two arch-rival halfbacks in Wellington on Saturday.
Boyd believes his effervescent No.9 TJ Perenara is in career-best form and is now aware of his importance to the home side as they seek to break a 20-year title drought.
The clash of Perenara and his All Blacks rival Tawera Kerr-Barlow will be influential, particularly after the former’s electric performance in the 41-0 crushing of the Sharks in Wellington last week.
Long renowned for his support play and a try-scoring knack, the 24-year-old has morphed into a key decision-maker, Boyd says.
“I think his game in the weekend was the best singular game he’s played,” Boyd said.
“He’s taken on a real maturity around his role with Beauden in driving the ship around. He’s playing with a degree of confidence and a degree of assertiveness, and he knows for us to do well at the weekend, he needs to play well.”
Perenara, a 19-Test veteran, has been rated behind Kerr-Barlow in the All Blacks selectors’ pecking order behind Aaron Smith since the Chiefs man returned from serious injury a year ago.
Kerr-Barlow has played second-fiddle to Brad Weber for much of the Chiefs’ campaign but the more experienced and combative player has been favoured this week by coach Dave Rennie.
Both halfbacks’ service to Barrett and Cruden will be critical, with the two five-eighths capable of breaking open the tightest defensive lines.
The biggest difference between two evenly-matched teams is play-off history.
The Chiefs have won their last three semi-final appearances, most recently their championship campaigns in 2012 and 2013.
In contrast, the Hurricanes have lost five of seven semi-finals and have lost all six of their previous play-off game against Kiwi teams.
They remain hopeful captain Dane Coles can overcome a rib cartilage injury but the All Blacks hooker has stressed he won’t push it if he’s not ready.
He will probably make a final decision on his fitness on game day.
“I want to do what’s best for the team – there’s no point in me being 50 per cent,” Coles said.
“I’m no good to anyone if I’m like that. I want to be 90 or 100. Otherwise I’ve got full confidence in the guys behind me to do the job as well.”