In terms of squad balance whereby experience blends with youth across the board, there are few teams whose rosters can topple that of the Chiefs.

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Aside from the lock department, where they are missing veteran Brodie Retallick who remains on his two-season sabbatical, they have at least one All Black represented in each positional group.

Add to that the development of some of the most promising youngsters in the league, including Quinn Tupaea, Etene Nanai-Seturo and Naitoa Ah Kuoi, and Warren Gatland’s side register as one of the firm favourites to challenge for the Super Rugby Aotearoa title.

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Super Rugby Aotearoa | Chiefs prep against Highlanders

That shouldn’t come as surprise to anyone given how well the Chiefs were tracking before the Super Rugby season was nullified back in March.

With first-five Aaron Cruden winding back the clock to team up with livewire halfback Brad Weber, the Hamilton side’s backline worked a treat.

Anton Lienert-Brown dazzled in the midfield, while Damian McKenzie was the headline act in an outside back trio that also featured the exciting Solomon Alaimalo and Shaun Stevenson.

In the pack, there was arguably no better performer in the loose forwards throughout the entire competition than Lachlan Boshier, who really established himself as a genuine contender to fill the gap left by Matt Todd in the national set-up.

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Weigh in the injury-plagued yet committed and talented workhorse Luke Jacobson, dominant ball-carrying No. 8 Pita Gus Sowakula and, of course, All Blacks captain Sam Cane, and the Chiefs’ loose forward depth is enviable.

Elsewhere, Samisoni Taukei’aho has blossomed into a regular starting candidate at hooker, building on the potential shown that apparently brought him to the attention of All Blacks selectors a few years ago.

On either side of the scrum, Taukei’aho is complemented by Aidan Ross, who shone as one of the in-form props of Super Rugby earlier this year, and Nepo Laulala, who is indisputably the best tighthead in New Zealand.

With such a complete starting lineup – aside from the Retallick-less second row – the Chiefs posted some significant victories over the Blues, Crusaders, Sunwolves and Waratahs throughout January, February and March.

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Those wins left them sitting in fifth place on the overall standings and they loomed as serious contenders to challenge for their third title at that early stage of the season.

In that round four clash at FMG Stadium Waikato, the Chiefs found themselves 19-0 adrift at half-time, with the visitors capitalising on the hosts’ lazy start and leaky defence to run in three first half tries.

A brace to Wallabies loose forward Pete Samu completed early in the second stanza enhanced the Brumbies’ buffer to 26-0, which was too big a mountain to climb for the Chiefs, who eventually fell 26-14.

It was a dismal display by the two-time Super Rugby champions, but that type of slow start wasn’t uncommon throughout the now-defunct season, as the Hamiltonians had to come from behind to usurp the Blues and Crusaders in consecutive weeks.

The tactical guile of Cruden can largely be attributed to those comebacks, as can the tenacious defensive presence of Boshier, but the Chiefs shouldn’t have to rely on making up for lacklustre starts to games in order to win them.

In Super Rugby Aotearoa, the Chiefs can ill-afford to be caught napping early on and suffer the same fate as they did against the Brumbies, because while they’ve shown they’re capable of recovering from a first half onslaught, one slip up in this league – which has no play-offs format – could scupper their entire campaign.

How Gatland inspires his troops to wake up from their pre-match doze once the referee blows for kick-off remains to be seen, but you imagine those improvements will be implemented when the face the Highlanders in Dunedin on Saturday.

In their quest for a campaign-opening win, the Chiefs will be without the services of All Blacks prop Atu Moli, who has been lauded by some plaudits for his ability to anchor either side of the scrum.

That versatility is a significant yet oft-overlooked aspect of the game, and Saturday’s visitors will be worse for it as Moli joins an extensive injury list that also includes fellow international Angus Ta’avao, Michael Allardice, Laghlan McWhannell and Sam McNicol.

Also absent is skipper Cane, whose stiff back forces him to sit out this match. His return, though, will strengthen an already powerful-looking Chiefs outfit against the Blues next week.

Provided they start off on the right foot and build on where they left off in March, they could head into that match already a leg up should they emerge successful against the Highlanders in front of a boisterous Forsyth Barr Stadium crowd.

Should they make it two from two, it would take a brave soul to bet against the Chiefs as they eye to dethrone the Crusaders as the alpha team of Super Rugby’s Kiwi contingent.

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