James Mortimer 20.Feb.2013Getty Images
Last season: One word and one word only – Champions. Far from being picked to win the title when proceedings kicked off in 2012, the combination of Dave Rennie, a World Cup winning assistant All Blacks coach, and a collection of men who were chosen for “work ethic” beyond anything else went on to conquer all comers in arguably the toughest rugby competition in the world. Three losses in their last six matches, including their final two fixtures of the regular season, only seemed to strengthen their resolve, typified with their impressive shutdown of the Crusaders.
This season: Unlike last year, the Chiefs are no longer the unknown, no more the dark horse. They are the defending champions, and such a tag carries a bullseye beyond any other franchise. The Bulls and the Reds have discovered after their title successes that teams aim to shut them down, and it will be no different for the Chiefs. However this ominous factor is evened out by the fact that nothing beats knowing exactly what it takes to take a Super Rugby crown.
The coaches: The combination of Rennie, Wayne Smith, Tom Coventry and Andrew Strawbridge proved to be the best foursome of Super Rugby, proved simply by their championship rings. Rennie’s step up from Manawatu maestro to Junior World Cup winning coach to being one of a select group to win a Super Rugby title was backed up by the backline and defensive patterns a la Smith, while the forward’s prowess under the tutelage of Coventry eventually ended up to be arguably the most dominant pack of 2012. Are they geniuses? Back-to-back titles would certainly hint at men who are ahead of the curve…
The forwards: Once again Craig Clarke and Liam Messam will lead a pack missing only one notable personality (see below) and should be able to lay the platform again for an overall team game that took down most opponents last season. Brodie Retallick is now an All Black, Sam Cane is their heir apparent, while a big front row, that is led by Mahonri Schwalger, Hika Elliot and Ben Tameifuna, won’t be shoved by any scrum soon.
The backs: The almost lucky acquisition of Gareth Anscombe has given the Chiefs a stellar and youthful number ten combination, with the former Blues navigator being placed as the understudy to potentially the fastest developing first five-eighth in world rugby – Aaron Cruden. The diminutive general looked completely at home in all aspects of the game last season, and will still have potency with a strong halves roster and two outstanding fullbacks in Robbie Robinson and Andrew Horrell.
Big loss?: No matter what spin the Waikato faithful might put on it, the loss of the Sonny and Sono show will hurt the Chiefs. The finest off loader last season and one of the most threatening backs of 2012 Super Rugby has gone, while the premier close quarters try scorer is now plying his trade in France. The Chiefs last year were all about the squad, and a fair amount of their mettle this year will be how they adjust their game without two of their showstoppers.
Big gain?: The championship formula. The Chiefs now know how to win Super Rugby, a quality that can only be learned by triumphing over every adversary, not just opposition teams, but having the confidence to tough it out. This was typified by the Chiefs reaction to what was by their standards a poor finish to the season, losing to the Crusaders and Hurricanes, while a month before those defeats they had conceded a season record 42 points against the Reds. The Chiefs charged into the Super Rugby Finals, shaking off any demons that might have been planted towards the end of their 2012 regular season campaign.
The leader: Or should we say leaders? Some eyebrows may have been raised when Craig Clarke and Liam Messam were named co-captains, but both men had their best seasons in Chiefs garb, leading from the front statistically, among the best lock and flanker respectively throughout the fifteen sides. However the addition of some old heads (like Mah Schwalger), along with growing generals (think Aaron Cruden), will ensure that the core of leaders that led the team to success remain.
Records: Champions (2012), runners-up (2009), Super Rugby Finals Series (2004).
Squad: Ben Afeaki , Bundee Aki, Gareth Anscombe, Sam Cane, Craig Clarke, Nick Crosswell, Aaron Cruden , Hikawera Elliot , Ross Filipo, Mike Fitzgerald , Romana Graham , Josh Hohneck, Andrew Horrell , Richard Kahui , Tawera Kerr-Barlow , Tanerau Latimer , Fritz Lee , Brendon Leonard , Rhys Marshall, Lelia Masaga , Liam Messam , Tim Nanai-Williams , Charlie Ngatai, Patrick Osborne, Augustine Pulu , Brodie Retallick, Robbie Robinson , Mahonri Schwalger, Toby Smith , Solomona Sakalia, Ben Tameifuna , Asaeli Tikoirotuma.
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