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Vant Leven worthy of Chief title

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Sportal.co.nz     25 Jul 2013     Getty Images

Matt Vant Leven remembers all too well the struggles he's faced during his pursuit of the Super Rugby dream.

Set for his eighth consecutive start for the Chiefs in Saturday's semifinal against the Crusaders, it's hard to fathom how the 25-year-old No 8 is only a part-timer.

His official status as a wider training squad member is a reminder that the goal he left Rotorua with three years ago is yet to be achieved.

In 2011 he was given a taste of the good life under Ian Foster. Little did he know those three appearances from the bench would have to fuel his motivation for the next 23 months as he fell off the radar.

The incoming Dave Rennie erased his name from the Chiefs' books altogether in 2012 but welcomed him back to his post in the wider squad after a solid campaign with Waikato in the ITM Cup.

For 10 weeks he waited at the bottom of the heap, watching as Frtiz Lee, Ross Filipo and Nick Crosswell battled injury and poor form at the back of the scrum.

Even blindside Liam Messam was handed the No 8 jumper before Vant Leven's moment finally arrived against the lowly Rebels in May.

Now he is one of the first names Rennie jots down on his Tuesday team sheets. Not bad for a qualified plumber who started playing rugby in his 7th form year at Rotorua Boys' High School.

A heavy blow to his neck in the final round robin game against the Blues threatened to end the dream run but there was no way he was going to miss the biggest match of his life to date.

Against the Crusaders he faces the ultimate test with no less than eight All Black forwards, and a substitute named Richie McCaw, determined to knock over the defending champions and avenge last year's agonising semifinal loss.

Should the Chiefs suffer defeat, they would almost certainly be back in contention for a final spot next year.

With six key players re-signed this year alone and two potential starters - Jamie Mackintosh and Tom Marshall - on the way, the future looks bright for the Mooloo men.

Unfortunately for Vant Leven there may not be a next year. After all his good work he had hoped to be one of those players locked in for next year's full-time squad, but it hasn't quite worked out that way.

"Nothing," he replied when asked whether he had been given any indication that a full-time contract could be on the horizon.

"That's my goal, but nothing at the moment."

It is thought that Rennie intends to lure Samoan international Kane Thompson back to Waikato Stadium where he was a permanent fixture at No 8 last year.

Lee looks more comfortable at ITM Cup level but will probably serve as a back-up or loose forward cover on the bench.

Croswell has one more year on his contract while the ageing Filipo is unlikely to return.

That puts Vant Leven in the difficult position of having to contend as the underdog for another year or consider moving elsewhere.

His current attitude suggests he will stick around. Though, rugby is full of surprises.

Having been named Waikato captain for this year's ITM Cup campaign he still has time to convince Rennie to sign him before the 2014 season.

Ranfurly Shield defences against Northland, Otago, Auckland, Wellington and Taranaki should help bring out the best in the bruising loose forward.

By then he hopes to have the honour of being called a Waikato Chief - a title few would deny he deserves.