The Chiefs haven’t made it to the final stages very often and by no means were they expected to do so at the start of the previous season, but they had a remarkable 2012. I think they even surprised themselves by winning the Super Rugby trophy for the first time in their history.
There are no less than 13 internationally capped players in their squad and certainly another handful on the verge of such selection. Even though you wouldn’t consider any of their current players to be the best in their positions, they are undoubtedly capable of standing their ground against the best.
Although they acquired the services of a few new faces during the off-season, none of them is truly noteworthy but the departures of try scoring machine Sona Taumalolo and offload specialist Sonny Bill Williams have made a substantial dent in their structures.
The Chiefs do have props that are considerably larger than Sona, but they possess nowhere near the same mobility, forcefulness or hunger for crossing the chalk.
Midfield also suddenly poses a bit of a headache with SBW gone. Not only will they sorely miss his offloading skills, but the fact is that he is such a good all-round athlete that he usually made everyone else excel beyond their own capacity.
I did hear a whisper through the grapevine that equally fleet-footed cousin Tim Nanai-Williams might shift inside from the wing and fullback positions we are used to see him in. Richard Kahui is also a viable option if he manages to dodge injuries.
With neither the front rowers nor the loosies being below par – beware scavengers Liam Messam and Sam Cane – and having some extremely competent locks in Brodie Retallick and captain Craig Clarke, their pack appears to be shipshape. However, the Reds really dominated the set pieces in their warm-up match and they’ll need to do some tweaking there.
Even though they won that battle 20-8, their handling let them down and they were kept scoreless for the entire first half. Nevertheless, they again defended like Trojans and have only conceded three tries in their two pre-season encounters.
After the 36-14 victory they pulled off in their clash against the Highlanders, this effort seems like a step backwards, but the conditions were worse and the competitors classier second time around.
Tawera Kerr-Barlow really lifted his game to sideline All Black halfback Brendon Leonard, and I suspect that this year will be no different, especially since Leonard will start the season with a fractured cheekbone.
Speedsters they have no lack of. Lelia Masaga, TNW, Asaeli Tokoirotuma and Andrew Horrell are definitely no slouches and in addition they have a rather accomplished flyhalf in Aaron Cruden, who is capable of cutting through the line like a hot knife through butter as well as having a wonderfully accurate boot.
As with all triumphs comes a lot of self-belief and with the team being a year wiser, this could carry the Chiefs a long way and they will now have to rise to the challenges of not being an unknown entity anymore.
Superseding their success, not getting through the knockout stages in 2013 will be seriously disappointing for them, though I reckon they’ll be able to add guts to last year’s glory.
For the team from Waikato I predict a finish at the top of the New Zealand ladder and second place overall.
by Jackie Smit