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The Great Big NZ Super Rugby Preview: The Chiefs

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James Mortimer     18 Feb 2014     Getty Images

It has been a remarkable transformation for a team that had experienced some moments of success, becoming the last team in the Kiwi grouping to reach the Investec Super Rugby Finals Series, achieving this in 2004 before losing to the eventual championship winning Brumbies.

Five years later, the Chiefs again created history, again becoming the last New Zealand franchise to reach a decider.

The Waikato based outfit lost to the side that won the crown.

That year the jewel of world rugby power resided in Pretoria. The Bulls won their second Super Rugby trophy in three years, the Springboks terrorised the All Blacks into a 0-3 ‘series loss’, while if that wasn’t enough the Blue Bulls claimed their 23rd Currie Cup Premier Division title.

There were plenty of Springboks celebrating on the field that night, but there were two players, wearing Chiefs colours, who stood still, jaws clenched, determined to ensure that the pain of that memory would serve them well at a later date.

Liam Messam and Craig Clarke were the two entrusted to lead the team through a new period by Dave Rennie, coming into the position in 2012 with credentials, but not quite a resume that suggested he would spearhead a drive to make the Chiefs one of the dominant teams in world rugby.

Has he achieved this goal?

No team has, in arguably the toughest week-in, week-out rugby tournament that exists, stopped them.

While last year it was noticeable that the All Blacks had more than one or two aspects that seemed to resemble the strategies emanating from the preeminent region in New Zealand.

In this time, Rennie has entered casual conversation as a real candidate for the most prized coaching post in New Zealand Rugby.

First things first, how does the 2014 squad look?

The Chiefs’ recruitment policy has seen two posters up on their ‘jobs available’ wall.

No rock-stars required and plenty of graters requested.

This has aided in producing a squad that as first year champions was able to overcome the loss of cult heroes and marquee performers Sona Taumalolo and Sonny Bill Williams, but this team hasn’t gotten where they have today with excuses, and man-for-man, more players have departed than the season before and among that group was Clarke.

Rennie pays credit to all his players, in what appears to be a coaching mark in the man, but while Clarke now runs around the fields of Connacht, he takes with him a calm that has been a hallmark in the side, especially on defence.

He will be missed during those dark times at the set piece and breakdown.

Messam has grown to become the All Blacks incumbent blindside, and his standing as one of the finest flankers ever produced by the region will be tested without his co-commander.

He will however be aided by the likes of Sam Cane and Tanerau Latimer in the back row, while elsewhere in the pack the presence of the huge Brodie Retallick, now among the best locks in the world, will be crucial.

The names of Cane and Latimer are significant, as the latter kept the heir apparent to Richie McCaw on the bench for extended periods.

Ben Afeaki, Mahonri Schwalger and Ben Tameifuna are joined by Jamie Mackintosh which gives the front row a heavyweight edge, while elsewhere the experience of Ross Filipo and English born second row forward Matt Symons ensures that Chiefs have – which has been something of an Achilles Heel in the past – a potentially powerful platform.

This is a pack that has won battles against the likes of the Crusaders, Bulls, Brumbies and Sharks, but while being competitive in the set piece, they have been far from invincible.

Their tough attitude masks the fact that the champions scrum and lineout is not quite that, ordinarily a Super Rugby winning franchise – think the Bulls prowess in the air or the Crusaders power when their eight forwards get angry - has a blue chip operation here without flaw.

The Chiefs though have their own feature, their own specific howitzer.

It is an ability to hurt you at any point, with the first stages of their offensive systems beginning with a front footed defensive screen that has might not been the stingiest in the competition, but is geared towards creating opportunities via turnovers and counterattack.

Their 50 tries in 2013 were unchallenged, and were a heady mix of well created scores and being alert to quick attacking change.

To put this feat into perspective, only eight times in history have the Blues, Brumbies, Bulls and Crusaders – all former champions – breached the half century over a campaign since 1996.

Their offence is not merely dictated by their defence, but is well marshalled by Aaron Cruden, who again will be one of the team’s key crucibles.

While his major axis partner is now an All Black, with Tawera Kerr-Barlow making his debut for the side, again the faces out wide have changed.

It isn’t a stretch to suggest that the signing policies, aided by that sheen from the recruitment office thanks to a Super Rugby trophy, has again ensured that high profile departures will not be as sorely missed.

Richard Kahui (Toshiba Brave Lupus) may have had an injury interrupted end to his tenure at the Chiefs, but his input was still signficiant, while Brendon Leonard (Zebre in Italy), Lelia Masaga (Honda Heat) and Patrick Osborne (Highlanders) have left.

The ever reliable Tom Marshall has shifted from Canterbury, while Robbie Fruean also makes the trek to Hamilton from red and black country.

With All Blacks centurion Mils Muliaina completing a once again formidable looking roster, the team has the goods – and will have the expectation that comes along with it – to create further history and become just the second Super Rugby team to win three on the trot.