'I don't think there's any pressure on us whatsoever': The big advantage the Chiefs take into the Super Rugby Aotearoa final
At this stage of last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa season, the Chiefs were coming off a ninth straight loss against New Zealand sides. After a great start to the year under new coach Warren Gatland, things had unravelled completely following the pandemic-enforced break.
Two more losses kicked off this year’s campaign under interim coach Clayton McMillan and the Chiefs were staring down the barrel of the worse losing streak for a New Zealand side in Super Rugby history.
But the team rallied – and fought their way back from 19 points down against the Hurricanes to record a remarkable comeback victory.
Then came four further tight wins on the trot and, barring last week’s unsurprising defeat at the hands of the Blues after fielding a makeshift team, the Chiefs will enter Saturday night’s Super Rugby Aotearoa grand final with form on their side and the belief that they can do the unthinkable.
In 24 knockout games played in Christchurch, the Crusaders have not once suffered a defeat.
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That’s a remarkable success rate for the current champions, who are looking to secure their fifth title in a row this weekend.
It also means that the Chiefs enter the game as huge underdogs – and that’s something that McMillan is entirely content with.
“I don’t think there’s any pressure on us whatsoever,” he said after naming the Chiefs side to take the field in the final. “We’ve already exceeded a lot of people’s expectations.
“The only thing that will let us down is that we don’t front, we don’t give our best, we go into our shell. But the way that the boys have trained, I highly doubt that’s going to happen. We’re going to come out fizzing. They know that, they’ve referred to us as scrappers and we’ll turn up as brawlers.”
While the Crusaders may be the undisputed kings of knockout rugby, the Chiefs actually have a winning record over the Cantabrians in sudden death games.
"You want to get stuck in but it’s in a respectful way. You’re just trying to get in there – and you have to, because they’re a bloody good side and they’ve been that way for so long now."@LiamMessam's latest column for @TheXV. #CRUvCHIhttps://t.co/JzIYaJh1bQ
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) May 7, 2021
That’s courtesy of their two semi-final wins over their southern rivals en route to their 2012 and 2013 titles – but both of those victories came in Hamilton. The Crusaders, meanwhile, recorded their solitary knockout win over the Chiefs in Christchurch in 2017 – also on the way to a title.
Stats aside, McMillan is confident that his charges can secure an unexpected victory this weekend, especially given how the two sides’ prior matches have played out this year.
“We’ve beaten them this year,” he said. “I think in the first game we played down there this year, we actually played some pretty good rugby and some decisions didn’t go our way which helped contribute to a bit of a blowout score.”
Said decisions included a clear knock-on from Crusaders pivot Richie Mo’unga not being identified by the refereeing team, even after the Chiefs had used their captain’s referral to check the incident.
Without the knock-on ruling, Chiefs captain Brad Weber was sin-binned for offside play and the Crusaders were awarded a penalty try, turning the close game on its head and giving the home team the momentum they needed to push on, eventually prevailing 39-17.
McMillan said there was a noticeable excitement around the squad ahead of this weekend’s do-or-die match but that they’d not altered proceedings significantly.
“In terms of a training week, nothing has changed but you can’t deny the excitement in the group,” he said. “It’s really just putting a lid on that stuff and not playing the game before the whistle’s been blown so I think our leaders have done an outstanding job of getting a good balance in our week and we’re just amped to get down there and start playing.
“We’ve just learnt that if you nail all your detail during the week then you give yourself a good opportunity on the weekend and our reality is we’ve won five of the last six games. All of them in our minds have been finals because it’s either been win and you stay in contention or lose and you’re at the bottom of the table so we’ve been operating with that pressure.
“You’ve seen that when we’ve managed to win games at the death. We’re comfortable that what we’ve been doing has served us well. There’s no point in changing anything. As I said, there’s pressure in terms of playing a final but we know internally that there’s more on them than us.”
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