The rugby has been thrilling but the injury toll has been high – and even for the players who are still left standing after nine rounds of Super Rugby Aotearoa action, it’s not been easy.
That’s the message from Hurricanes flanker Du’Plessis Kirifi, who will continue to wear the No 7 jersey in Ardie Savea’s absence when the Highlanders travel to Wellington for tonight’s fixture.
The match will mark the final game for both sides in this year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa competition – and it could mark their final ever clash in the makeshift tournament, given the changes that are taking player next year.
While the Hurricanes have just a solitary win to their name – over the Highlanders five weeks ago – the visitors could pip the Blues for third place with a victory tonight.
For Kirifi and his teammates, the challenge has been turning up every week with a smile on their faces, given not everything has gone their way this year.
“There’s not much you can do in terms of the reality of the situation,” Kirifi said, acknowledging their tough run of losses – the latest which saw Chiefs No 15 Damian McKenzie nail a penalty after the final buzzer. “We’ve just got to turn up on Monday with a smile on our face.
“[We’ve got] one big game against the Highlanders left and we’re both in a similar situation. It’s going to be a pretty exciting game, I guess – nothing to lose. And then obviously look towards the Australian competition.”
The upcoming Trans-Tasman competition, which kicks off in two weeks’ time, will give players a chance to freshen up against new and, in some cases, somewhat less challenging opposition.
“The thing with playing the New Zealand teams, week in and week out, is you know the majority of games are going to come down to a single moment, a single try or a single play,” said Kirifi. “Which means, mentally, you’re preparing for 80-minute and 85-minute games.
“Whereas in the past – I’m not saying [non-derby] games are any easier – but it’s been a longer season and there are more ups and downs whereas the competition is tight here.
"It’s probably not gone the way I’ve personally wanted it to go."
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“The Chiefs, the last four games they’ve won have gone down to four moments and those moments could have gone either way. It’s just how tight the competition is and I think for players and individuals, week in, week out having to mentally prepare for that kind of battle can take its toll. But we try look after each other and try support each other the best we can.
“The mental challenge is just as big as the physical one but, in saying that, that’s all part of it. It’s about rising to it and embracing it. Hopefully, we do it a little bit better next year.”
While the focus remains on this weekend, Kirifi has been keeping an eye on the Super Rugby AU competition across the ditch, where the Reds and Brumbies have looked every bit as tough as the Kiwi teams, the Waratahs have floundered, and the Western Force and Rebels have sat somewhere in the middle.
“As rugby players and students of the game, you’re watching rugby while you’re eating dinner,” Kirifi said. “I’ve definitely been keeping an eye on how those Aussie boys are going and they look sharp, playing a fast brand of rugby, so looking forward to going over there and playing them.
“We will be fresh because we haven’t played those boys in a couple of years now so it’s something exciting to look forward to. A bit of travel too. Go to Sydney, see the beach.
“The challenge [right now] is trying to beat those New Zealand teams because they’re top shelf but part of playing rugby as a professional is enjoying the travel and the stuff that comes with that, on top of working hard.”
The Hurricanes’ match against the Highlanders kicks off at 7:05pm NZT from Sky Stadium in Wellington.
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