Chiefs want to cap off a fairy-tale season

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SANZAR     02 Aug 2012     Getty Images

At the tailgate of the amateur era it was Auckland and the Blues, but as Super Rugby and the Tri-Nations came into fruition, the Crusaders ripped the tag as the powerhouse New Zealand franchise with a victory in Eden Park in the 1998 Final, the first of seven Super Rugby championships for the red and blacks.

However the beauty of the Super Rugby tournament over its seventeen years is that almost every champion has had to dethrone another to succeed.

In 1998 it was the Crusaders over the Blues, in 2003 it was the Blues over the Crusaders, and in 2004 it was the Brumbies over the Crusaders, while throughout the Super 14 era every one of the Bulls three titles came after semi-final success over the Crusaders.

And the trend continued at Waikato Stadium on Saturday night, with the Chiefs having to overcome the last Kiwi team to win a championship, the 2011 New Zealand Conference champions, and the last side to lower their colours in front of their home crowd in Hamilton.

The 20-17 victory moves the Chiefs into their second Super Rugby Final.

Their first was contested in 2009, when they came up against the Bulls and suffered the biggest loss in Super Rugby Final history, going down 61-17 in a match where the South Africans were in a merciless mood.

Seven players from the current squad - Craig Clarke, Liam Messam, Tanerau Latimer, Sona Taumalolo, Richard Kahui, Hika Elliot and Lelia Masaga – featured in that game (Elliot was on the bench), and while All Blacks centre Kahui is out of action, co-captain Craig Clarke is confident of taking his place on the field despite injury concerns.

With Super Rugby glory just 80 minutes away, it will cap off a solid period of rugby for the region, with main feeder union Waikato competing in the ITM Cup Grand Final for the last two years, although originally in 1996 it was expected that the Chiefs would provide a more formidable challenge.

If they win this weekend, it will be a remarkable achievement when considering that of the 12 foundation teams (in the Super 12 era), the Chiefs have the worst Super Rugby Finals participation rate of any franchise.

In 1996 and 1997 Waikato held the Ranfurly Shield (the latter for 21 defences), while they competed in the final of the 1998 NPC, and made the semi-finals of the same competition a year later. Yet this success at provincial level didn’t translate to the Chiefs, whose best early competition finishes came in 1996, 1999 and 2001, where they finished sixth on the overall table.

History was created when the New Zealand Rugby Union engineered a territorial swap in 1999 saw the Chiefs “return” Northland and North Harbour to the Blues franchise, and the Chiefs gain Counties-Manukau and Thames Valley, which outside of South Africa has been the only geographical overhauling of a Super Rugby franchise.

In 2004 new coach Ian Foster, who replaced Kevin Greene, and captain and Waikato stalwart Jono Gibbes, took the Chiefs to their first ever Super Rugby Finals Series – but lost back-to-back matches to the eventual championship winning Brumbies in the final match of the regular season and the semi-final.

While it would be another five years before the Chiefs tasted knockout action, they were always considered a strong outfit, finishing no lower than seventh from 2005 to 2008, before reaching their second Super Rugby Finals Series before losing to the Bulls.

One aspect that the Chiefs have made a mockery of this season is the fact that a Super Rugby championship winning side typically is filled with experienced players.

Like the recently defeated title holding Reds, the Chiefs have one of the youngest squads in the competition, breaking the trend of vastly experienced championship contenders in the mould of the Blues, Crusaders, Brumbies and Bulls.

Further to this is the fact that the Chiefs have no Super Rugby centurions on their honour board (although Keven Mealamu, Caleb Ralph, Tana Umaga and Leon MacDonald had stints with the Waikato based franchise during their 100 plus Super Rugby game careers), and this aspect is mirrored in terms of their international experience.

Indeed their most experienced All Black is the injured Richard Kahui with 16 test caps, although Samoan internationals Mahonri Schwalger (36) and Kane Thompson (22) provide some old heads to the Chiefs pack.

Victory for the Chiefs would see them become the third Kiwi side (after the Blues and Crusaders) to win a Super Rugby title, and make it the 13th season where the home finalist has won the overall crown.

The Chiefs have also won 12 regular season games, breaking the 11-game New Zealand record set by the Crusaders (2002, 2006, 2008 and 2011), while their 444 regular season points and 47 tries scored is a franchise record, overtaking the 2007 mark of 373 points and 43 tries.