Fair play to those Chiefs.
Battling injuries and mediocre form early in the season, they somehow hauled themselves up off their bootlaces and not only scraped into the Super Rugby playoffs, but made major recent statements in Suva and Melbourne.
They were 0-4 when the inevitable calls for head coach Colin Cooper’s head sounded. But New Zealand employment law is not like it is in the UK and USA when you can sack someone by lunchtime. Thank goodness we are not knee-jerk like some critics would have us be.
Admittedly, the Chiefs were terrible against the Brumbies, Sunwolves and Crusaders early doors. But once they accepted that Damian McKenzie was out, Sam Cane was still weeks away, and worked out which side of the scrum Angus Ta’avao should not operate (loosehead, as it turns out), they started to turn the corner.
Relying on consistent performers such as Anton Lienert-Brown, Brad Weber, Lachie Boshier and Tyler Ardron, the Chiefs started to make their way up the ladder. It was not without heartache. The Lions, Hurricanes (easily) and the Blues all lowered them. After labouring to a 19-13 win in Hamilton over the Reds, few but the most ardent Chiefs fans would have backed them to make a withering rails run to the playoffs.
Those same fans would have turned their hopes to 2020 when the Crusaders put 20 on them in the first quarter in Suva. But they did not reckon on Jack Debreczeni suddenly finding his feet at this level, Shaun Stevenson rediscovering his mojo on the right wing after a poor start to the season at fullback, and Cane proving that you can return from a neck injury just as tough and just as effective over the ball.
To cap off the regular season, with Big Brodie Retallick back in the nick of time from a wrist injury, they blitzed a Rebels side (59-8) that had everything to play for in front of their home crowd. Not only did the Chiefs hurtle into the playoffs, but they placed seventh, thus avoiding having to meet the Crusaders in Christchurch, usually a dead-end for visiting teams.
In 2018 we gave the Chiefs credit for overcoming a propping crisis to finish fifth, only narrowly losing their quarter-final to the Hurricanes in the capital. This year they have not seen two loosehead props – Kane Hames and Reuben O’Neill – and have had to do without their three best players for large tracts of the competition. Up have stepped Jesse Parete and Luke Jacobson, among others. ALB has acted as the backline rock.
Contrast that to the Blues, who were making confident noises after beating the Chiefs 23-8 at Eden Park a month ago. They collapsed after that, failing at their best chance to beat a tired and mentally battered Crusaders in Christchurch, only drawing with the Bulls in a game they should have won, somehow contriving to lose to the Reds in Brisbane and then blowing a 24-5 halftime lead to the Hurricanes B last weekend.
They have more talent than the Chiefs, and should have had more depth. But the Chiefs are smarter and play with more nous and commitment. They are more than capable of tipping over the Jaguares and reaching the semifinals.
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