WELLINGTON (AFP) – Defending Super 15 champions Waikato Chiefs were Thursday sweating on the fitness of star winger Lelia Masaga in the countdown to Saturday's final against the ACT Brumbies.
Masaga, one of the top attacking players in the competition this year, was troubled by an ankle injury, forcing the Chiefs to prepare an alternative combination with fullback Robbie Robinson on standby for the wing berth.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie is confident Masaga will start, but is leaving the decision as late as possible.
The one-Test All Black is an integral part of the Hamilton-based franchise, who are aiming for a second successive Super crown and the chance to declare they have launched the competition's latest champion dynasty.
The Brumbies are looking to re-ignite their own heady days, which ended nine years ago when they won the second of their two titles.
A quirk of the draw means the Chiefs and Brumbies did not play each other during the regular season this year. They have been forced to draw up game plans based on video analysis.
Crucial to the outcome will be the battle at the breakdown, where All Blacks Tanerau Latimer and Sam Cane will combat one of the masters of the dark arts, George Smith.
The wily Smith was the outstanding performer when the Brumbies upset the Northern Bulls 26-23 in their semi-final at Pretoria.
A veteran of the previous successful Brumbies teams in 2001 and 2004, Smith's ball snaffling skills have been a key platform for coach Jake White's territory-based game, and the Chiefs know what to expect.
"They play a lot of high balls and kick chases and stuff so they're going to be a real tough side," said Chiefs scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22, who acknowledged the threat posed by Smith, 11 years his senior.
"I never thought in my life that I would get to play against him, so that will be pretty cool, but he does a pretty good job at the breakdown so we'll have to try and nullify that," he said.
Statistically, the Chiefs' numbers are not impressive in key areas. They had the worst possession rate in the competition (averaging 13 minutes 53 seconds per game) and the lowest lineout success rate of only 78 percent on their own throw.
But they possess lethal finishing ability, scoring more points (458) and tries (50) than any other side in the regular season.
That equates to an outstanding one try for every four-and-a-half minutes that they have the ball in hand.
Much of their strike power has been set up by the instinct of playmaker Aaron Cruden and finished off by Masaga, the man who broke open their semi-final against the Crusaders with an audacious try early in the second half that led to the 20-19 victory.
Discipline has been an issue for the Brumbies, who have conceded more penalties than any other team -- but they do have point-scoring strength, with Christian Lealiifano the second-highest points scorer this season at 211 and winger Henry Speight the second-best try scorer with eight.
For the Brumbies to be successful, however, they will have to achieve what no other Australian or South African side has achieved.
That is to win any form of play-off match in New Zealand where the Crusaders (seven), Auckland Blues (three) and Chiefs have won 11 of the 17 finals contested.
Clyde Rathbone, like Smith a survivor from the champion 2004 Brumbies unit and who has made a remarkable comeback this year after being sidelined for three years by injury and depression, sees an upset in the making.
"The key thing is we've managed to find ways to win, particularly away from home. There is a lot of belief in the side," he said.
"We acknowledge we are the underdogs, but that excites us. The Bulls were favourites last week and we believe we can cause another upset."