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Can they go one better? The big questions for the Chiefs to answer in 2024

By Finn Morton
Damian McKenzie, Rameka Poihipi and Shaun Stevenson of the Chiefs celebrate winning the round six Super Rugby Pacific match between Chiefs and Blues at FMG Stadium Waikato, on April 01, 2023, in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

With the Chiefs down by two and time almost up at the end of last season’s Super Rugby Pacific final in Hamilton, playmaker Damian McKenzie lined up a long-range shot at goal.

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The Chiefs’ practically perfect run to a home ground decider – which was only marred by an upset loss to the Queensland Reds at the very same venue – led to that defining moment.

McKenzie offered a trademark grin to the fans, cameras and goalposts before stepping towards the ball. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, the penalty attempt didn’t have the legs.

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But with enough time on the clock to make amends, the Chiefs controlled possession for the next three minutes. Desperately, they tried to make something happen – but their efforts were in vain.

Referee Ben O’Keeffe awarded a penalty in favour of the Crusaders with less than a minute to run which saw departing flyhalf Richie Mo’unga ice the game with one last shot at goal.

20-25. That scoreline brought a sour end to an otherwise promising campaign for the Hamilton-based franchise. But an opportunity to put the past behind them awaits.

While former co-captains Sam Cane and Brad Weber are not part of Clayton McMillan’s squad for 2024 – among six departing All Blacks – the Chiefs have been touted as one of the 2024 favourites.

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Should they be expected to go one better in 2024?

With playmaker Damian McKenzie leading the way after returning to New Zealand following a stint in Japan, the Chiefs turned heads with an opening-round demolition of the Crusaders last season.

The Chiefs put on a clinic with a 31-10 win down in Christchurch, and that was only the beginning. Clayton McMillan’s men were unbeaten until a round 12 upset loss to the Reds at home.

But that one loss, married with their only other defeat in the final, doesn’t take away from the strides the Chiefs made in 2023. They’re a good team and they should be expected to get better.

While the departures of six All Blacks including Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and Brad Weber may be a cause for concern, they have some talented players to choose from in their absence.

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Josh Lord and Tupou Vaa’i could become frontline All Blacks in the foreseeable future, Cortez Ratima is one of the brightest rising stars in the nation, and Quinn Tupaea is finally back from injury.

This team is more than capable of something special and they’ll be riding a wave of confidence after last season. The Chiefs are among the title favourites for a reason.

Multiple sports betting websites have the Chiefs as a close second behind the Crusaders as favourites – gamble responsibly – which seems fair if history is anything to go by.

But the Crusaders have some mighty big holes to fill within their squad, including the loss of seven-time champion coach Scott Robertson.

So, should Chiefs fans expect their first title since 2013? Absolutely.

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Is Damian McKenzie the best flyhalf in New Zealand?

Going back almost 12 months to Super Round in Melbourne, playmaker Damian McKenzie told RugbyPass that the “opportunity” to become the first-choice All Blacks flyhalf was “enticing.”

All Blacks Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett had both signed deals in Japan, although the latter has since recommitted to New Zealand Rugby from 2025.

McKenzie went on to guide the Chiefs to the aforementioned Super Rugby Pacific decider as one of the best players in the entire competition. Certainly, it seemed, he was the form 10 as well.

But the attention quickly shifted from that final to the Test season, with McKenzie receiving the first crack at the All Blacks’ No. 10 jersey against Argentina in Mendoza. Other than a charge down inside 30 seconds, McKenzie was solid, reliable and skilful.

While more opportunities proved hard to come by from there, McKenzie was handed the playmaking reins during the Rugby World Cup against Uruguay and he didn’t disappoint. The 28-year-old starred and was rewarded with Player of the Match honours.

That was last year, though. Looking ahead to the next 12 months, the pressure and expectation on McKenzie are only going to continue to grow.

With attacking weapons Shaun Stevenson, Etene Nanai-Seturo and Emoni Narawa outside him, and presumably with Cortez Ratima joining him in the halves, McKenzie has the weapons he needs to thrive.

Many consider the All Blacks’ No. 10 jersey to be his for the taking. Other rugby fans would be brave to tip against him in the pursuit of that goal.

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Can the Chiefs fill the void left behind by Sam Cane and Brad Weber?

The start of a new Rugby World Cup cycle means the dawn of a new era for all teams, but there’s no denying the Chiefs have been hit harder than most.

All Blacks captain Sam Cane will miss this season after taking up a sabbatical in Japan, while Brad Weber has bid farewell to New Zealand Rugby after signing for French side Stade Francais.

Both men take invaluable experience and leadership with them overseas which begs the question: can they be replaced?

Starting with Sam Cane, it would seem the No. 7 jersey is Luke Jacobson’s for the taking. Jacobson, who was part of the All Blacks’ World Cup squad, played a couple of Super Rugby matches at openside last season.

Jacobson has also captained the Chiefs in the past and would have to be considered the favourite to lead the Hamilton-based franchise in 2024.

But if Jacobson were to play No. 8 or at openside, coach McMillan has plenty of other talents to choose from.

Kaylum Boshier, Simon Parker, Samipeni Finau, Wallace Sititi, Tom Florence and Malachi Wrampling-Alec are all in the mix as options in the backrow.

A player like Sam Cane is invaluable to any team – he couldn’t miss a tackle if he tried during periods of last season – but Luke Jacobson can forge a new legacy in that jersey.

As for the race to replace Weber, the Chiefs have some of the best depth in the position in the country.

Cortez Ratima appears to be the frontrunner to succeed the departed co-captain, while former All Black Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and Xavier Roe are more than capable of taking Super Rugby by storm in 2024.

The Chiefs will be just fine.

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Will Shaun Stevenson win over All Blacks selectors?

As rugby fans in a Rugby World Cup year, many will remember exactly where they were when they saw the All Blacks’ squad for The Rugby Championship for the first time.

Among the names of world-class veterans and a handful of bolters as well, the initial omission of Chiefs flyer Shaun Stevenson caught a lot of people by surprise.

Stevenson was clearly the best player in Super Rugby Pacific for the first month last season, and that form continued throughout the majority of the campaign.

With 12 tries to his name at the end of the season, including a run of seven tries in three games at one point, there was no denying that Stevenson had hit a purple patch.

But All Blacks selectors went another way as Chiefs teammate Emoni Narawa was given the nod in the national squad.

While Stevenson was called in immediately as an injury replacement for Mark Tele’a, and went on score on debut during the All Blacks’ tough win over the Wallabies in Dunedin, it’s clear the 27-year-old was on the outer last time around.

But if Stevenson can carry last season’s form into the campaign, and fix some defensive issues that may have hampered his Test ambitions, then coach Scott Robertson will be left with no choice but to pick him.

We all know that Stevenson is certainly good enough.

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Can Tupou Vaa’i & Josh Lord become the locks New Zealand needs them to be?

With the All Blacks’ heartbreaking Rugby World Cup campaign now in the past, new coach Scott Robertson will watch Super Rugby Pacific with intent as he looks to replace some genuine greats.

Brodie Retallick and All Blacks Test record-holder Sam Whitelock are two of the greatest to have ever worn the No. 4 or 5 jersey in the international arena.

Both have won Rugby World Cup titles – Whitelock won two and played in another final – Bledisloe Cups, Rugby Championships and more. The pair formed quite the combination, too.

But their departures open the door for the next generation to step up to the plate. While Crusaders captain Scott Barrett is a shoo-in to start for the All Blacks, the other spot is up for grabs.

Tupou Vaa’i and Josh Lord will both be vying for that spot in the All Blacks’ starting side, and failing that there will be another one or two spots in the squad for second rowers.

With the lineout a cornerstone of this great game, the All Blacks and the New Zealand rugby public need players to step up in the absence of Retallick and Whitelock.

It’s there for the taking if Vaa’i and/or Lord are good enough to make the most of it, but to do so they’ll need to make their mark with the Chiefs in Super Rugby.

Both players should be considered likely candidates to at least make the national squad.

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J
Jon 1 days ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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