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Super Rugby Teams of the Decade: The Chiefs players that built a legacy

By Tom Vinicombe
The Chiefs perform a haka to the crowd after winning the 2012 Super Rugby title. (Photo by Simon Watts/Getty Images)

There’s no question that the decade spanning from 2010 to 2019 has been the most successful period in the Chiefs’ short history.


Prior to the Chiefs’ 2012 title win, the Waikato based side had only made the Super Rugby finals twice. In 2004 they were handily beaten by the Brumbies in Canberra, while they were flogged by the Bulls in Pretoria in the 2009 final.

The decade kicked off with two miserable seasons, with the Chiefs finishing 10th in both 2010 and 2011. From that point on, however, things have been running pretty smoothly.

First, Dave Rennie was appointed head coach in 2012 and instantly guided the team to a maiden championship. A year later, they did the deed again.

In fact, they’ve made the Super Rugby finals for the last eight season in a row – which is a record not matched by any other team in the competition.

Continue reading below…

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Naturally, with results like those, the Chiefs have been blessed with a trove of exciting and talented players over the last 10 years.

So, who have been the Chiefs’ most significant performers since 2010?

1 – Pauliasi Manu (2013 – 16)

Throughout their history, the Chiefs have struggled to compete with the likes of the Crusaders, Highlanders and Blues in the front row.


The last decade has seen a bit of a change in fortunes for the franchise, with a number of more than capable scrummagers coming through the ranks.

Pauliasi Manu is one of the key men who helped the Chiefs to their second Super Rugby title in 2013 and his form in the following years saw him called up for the All Blacks at the 2015 Rugby World Cup – although he didn’t ever make the field for the national side.

In 2017, Manu headed north to the Blues – the Super Rugby side he made his debut for in 2011. Manu then spent 2019 with the Sunwolves, but it’s with the Chiefs where he made the most notable impact. Manu earned almost half a century of caps for the Chiefs over his four years.

Other notable players: Sona Taumalolo (2008 – 12), Toby Smith (2010 – 13)


2 – Hika Elliot (2009 – 17)

Perhaps the Chiefs’ hookers haven’t necessarily reached the same heights as their compatriots around New Zealand, but it’d be difficult to argue they haven’t been well-stocked in the middle of the front row.

Hika Elliot has never had a free shot at the No. 2 jersey, with Aled de Malmanche, Mahonri Schwalger, Rhys Marshall and Nathan Harris all vying for the starting role since Elliot joined the team in 2009. Despite the quality competition, Elliot still managed to accrue over 115 caps for the Chiefs, which is a franchise record for a front-rower.

Hika Elliot offloads the ball to a waiting Michael Leitch for the Chiefs. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

In his early years, Elliot was known for his accurate line-out work, but he quickly developed into a damaging runner with the ball in hand. The Hastings native also managed a handful of caps for the All Blacks over his career.

Other notable players: Mahonri Schwalger (2012 – 14), Rhys Marshall (2013 – 16), Nathan Harris (2014 – )

3 – Ben Tameifuna (2012 – 15)

It was hard not to take notice of Ben Tameifuna when he burst onto the scene for the Chiefs in 2012.

The 135+ kilogram prop was as much a wrecking ball in the scrums as he was around the field. Understandably, his fitness levels weren’t quite up to the same standard as other props running around, which probably played a large part in why he never progressed to the next level.

Since returning from the World Cup earlier this year, Tameifuna has been on a major fitness regime with his French club side Racing 92 after clocking in at a massive 160kg.

Tameifuna was a key performer for the Chiefs in both their title runs and started in both finals.

Other notable players: Ben Afeaki (2010 – 14), Nepo Laulala (2016 – )

4 – Craig Clarke (2009 – 13)

Craig Clarke was originally brought into the Chiefs in 2009 after spending time with both the Crusaders and the Hurricanes.

When Rennie came in as head coach, he promoted Clarke to co-captain alongside Liam Messam. It was an inspired selection and Clarke has arguably been one of the Chiefs’ best-ever captains, guiding the team to successive finals.

Clarke perhaps wasn’t as dynamic as some of the other locks doing the rounds, but he was an expert at the core skills and was an industrious tackler.

Clarke’s career came to an end in 2014 when he suffered his tenth concussion and was advised to retire. Just a month earlier, Clarke captained Irish side Connacht to one of their greatest-ever wins, over Toulouse in the Heineken Cup.

Other notable players: Dominic Bird (2016 – 18)

5 – Brodie Retallick (2012 – 19)

The Chiefs have had a number of handy operators in the locks over the years, but it wasn’t until Brodie Retallick arrived from Christchurch in 2012 that they found themselves a genuinely world-class second-rower.

Young players typically take a few years to find their stride at Super Rugby level, but Retallick was quickly thrust into a starting role for the Chiefs and looked like an incredible prospect from day one. On the back of Retallick’s outstanding performances during the Chiefs title-winning run, the rangy lock found himself in the All Blacks squad for the June series. He hasn’t looked back since.

28-year-old Retallick has accumulated 107 caps for the Chiefs and will spend 2020 with the Kobelco Steelers before returning to the Chiefs the following year.

Other notable players: Michael Allardice (2015 – )

6 – Liam Messam (2006 – 15, 17 – 18)

If there’s a player that everyone should think of when they see a Chiefs jersey from the last decade, then it’s Liam Messam.

A fresh-faced Liam Messam on the run for the Chiefs in 2008. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Messam managed 179 caps for the Chiefs over two stints with the franchise, spanning 12 years in total. His mana within the Chiefs’ ranks is still second-to-none and it’s difficult to envisage another player ever clocking up as many minutes with the team as the former Rotorua Boys’ High student.

Messam began his career as a stock sevens player, often acting as a link man in the Chiefs’ flowing plays, but he added considerable bulk to his frame over the years and earned 43 caps for the All Blacks between 2008 and 2015.

Other notable players: Tyler Ardron (2018 – )

7 – Sam Cane (2011 – )

For his first few years in the Chiefs set-up, Sam Cane found himself playing second-fiddle to another Chiefs stalwart, Tanerau Latimer. That’s not a major surprise, given that Latimer was an accomplished performer himself (who managed a handful of caps for New Zealand throughout his career), but also because Cane was only 19-years-old at the time.

Cane played a similar role behind Richie McCaw at the All Blacks from 2012 until 2015, but following McCaw’s retirement, had a tight grasp on the 7 jersey for the national side before breaking his neck last season.

Cane is a player that is still underrated by many. He’s an exceptionally powerful tackler – but also rarely misses his target – and is a key organiser of the defence line for both the Chiefs and the All Blacks.

Cane has accrued 111 caps for the Chiefs to date and should crack on to hit the 150 mark before the next World Cup.

Other notable players: Tanerau Latimer (2007 – 14)

8 – Michael Leitch (2015 – 17)

Michael Leitch didn’t spend a long time with the Chiefs, but he made his presence felt in his three seasons with the team.

Leitch covered all three loose forward roles for the franchise but looked most at home at the back of the scrum – where’s he’s subsequently spent plenty of time for both the Sunwolves and the Japanese national side.

The Christchurch-born player was often the instigator in sweeping backline moves off the base of the scrum and was also accomplished over the ball.

The Chiefs have often struggled to retain their number 8s over the years, with Kane Thompson and Matt Vant Leven playing key roles in the 2012 and 2013 title wins.

9 – Tawera Kerr-Barlow (2011 – 17)

If there’s one particular position where the Chiefs have been blessed over the last decade, it’s at halfback.

Since 2010, four Chiefs halfbacks have been selected for the All Blacks, but none made quite as large an impact both on and off the field for the Waikato-based team as Tawera Kerr-Barlow.

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Kerr-Barlow’s best attribute may have been his resolute defence, but he was a reliable passer and kept the opposing defences honest around the breakdown too.

Kerr-Barlow was born in Australia and schooled at Hamilton Boys’ High and finished his career at the Chiefs with 83 caps to his name. He now represents La Rochelle in France.

Other notable players: Brendon Leonard (2007 – 13), Brad Weber (2014 – ), Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (2018 – )

10 – Aaron Cruden (2012 – 17)

Perhaps Dave Rennie’s greatest accomplishment was bringing Aaron Cruden along with him to the Chiefs – a man who had shown promise in his formative years for the Hurricanes but only consistently delivered on that promise when he headed north.

Chiefs flyhalf Aaron Cruden shows off his short passing game against the Waratahs. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Cruden’s playmaking brilliance allowed the men outside him to flourish. He formed a super combination with Sonny Bill Williams during the 2012 season but then continued to combine well with the likes of Charlie Ngatai, Anton Lienert-Brown, and any other midfielder who pulled on the 12 jersey.

In the two years since Cruden’s departure at the end of 2017, the Chiefs have struggled to replace Cruden’s genius – but the Manawatu man will be back in action in 2020 and will be an excellent mentor for the young 10s in the Chiefs set-up.

A special mention must go to Stephen Donald, who guided the Chiefs to their historic win over Wales in 2016.

Other notable players: Stephen Donald (2005 – 11, 16, 19)

11 – James Lowe (2014 – 17)

He’s the man you love to have on your team but hate to be playing against, current Leinster wing James Lowe.

Lowe possessed exceptional pace and a never-say-die attitude, plus his hefty boot got the Chiefs out of trouble on more than one occasion.

The Tasman wing probably featured in more Chiefs highlight packages alone than any other player, courtesy of his scything runs (and his trademark smile).

It would have been nice if the Chiefs were able to get a few more years out of Lowe, but a place in the national set up always seemed to elude him. Perhaps Ireland will see the benefits of Lowe’s abilities on the international circuit.

Other notable players: Asaeli Tikoirotuma (2012 – 14)

12 – Charlie Ngatai (2013 – 18)

Charlie Ngatai may have struggled with concussions throughout his career with the Chiefs, but that never held him back on the field.

An age-grade sprinting champion, Ngatai was comfortable both in the midfield and at fullback. He was deceptively quick but had all the skills necessary to make him an excellent midfielder.

His raking punch and booming defence are now on display for Lyon after the former Taranaki captain made the decision to head overseas at the end of last season.

Ngatia’s longevity with the franchise sees him picked ahead of Sonny Bill Williams, who was exceptional for the Chiefs in 2012 and resolute in 2015.

Other notable players: Sonny Bill Williams (2012, 15)

13 – Anton Lienert-Brown (2014 – )

One of the Chiefs’ most consistent performers over the last few years has been All Blacks centre Anton Lienert-Brown.

The midfielder debuted for the Chiefs in Pretoria at the age of just 18 and has had a rapid rise through the ranks. Lienert-Brown is equally comfortable at both 12 and 13 and often finds himself shifted to accommodate for whoever he’s partnered with.

Arguably, Lienert-Brown’s greatest strength is his ability to keep the ball alive on attack – either by zig-zagging around defenders or throwing a crucial offload.

With 69 caps for the Chiefs and 38 for the All Blacks, the 24-year-old still has plenty to give to both his franchise and the nation.

Richard Kahui was another quality performer for the Chiefs in the early stages of the decade, but Lienert-Browns’ extra minutes gets him the spot in the team of the decade.

Other notable players: Richard Kahui (2007 – 13), Andrew Horrell (2012 – 16)

14 – Tim Nanai-Williams (2010 – 15, 17)

Jack of all trades, master of none is a common saying that could probably apply to a number of professional rugby players but Tim Nanai-Williams managed to buck that trend by being exemplary all across the Chiefs backline.

Tim Nanai-Williams shows off his dancing feet against British and Irish Lions centre Robbie Henshaw. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

It was on the wing where the Samoan international had the greatest impact for the Chiefs, with his sidestepping game causing havoc for his opposite numbers.

Nanai-Williams debuted in 2010 and managed 85 Super Rugby appearances.

Another hot-stepper who was a key member of the Chiefs in the early years of the decade was Lelia Masaga. His highlights reel is a sight to behold.

Other notable players: Lelia Masaga (2006 – 13)

15 – Damian McKenzie (2015 – )

Is there any player better to watch right now than Damian McKenzie?

Few had heard of the diminutive flyhalf-cum-fullback when he debuted at 10 in the Chiefs’ opening game of 2015 against the Blues. McKenzie put in a prodigious performance, scoring 13 points, which is all the more impressive given he was just 19-years-old at the time.

Since then, McKenzie has gone from strength to strength and he’s found a home in the fullback jersey where he’s had the opportunity to ignite some scintillating counter attacks.

McKenzie’s injury-enforced absence was very noticeable this season, with the Chiefs lacking some of their key attacking spark without McKenzie parked out in the backfield.

Other notable players: Solomon Alaimalo (2017 – )

WATCH: A huge number of Chiefs players throughout the years (including Tawera Kerr-Barlow) have come from Hamilton Boys’ High School – one of the most successful schools in New Zealand.

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