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The past wrongs righted by the Chiefs in their Super Round smashing

By Tom Vinicombe
Sam Cane. (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

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With eight teams qualifying for the Super Rugby Pacific finals series later this season, the Chiefs are already closing in on an all-but-guaranteed spot in the knockout stages of the competition.

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By securing a bonus-point victory over the Waratahs in Melbourne on Friday night, the Chiefs now sit on 28 competition points – 17 ahead of the Melbourne Rebels, who would likely need to win four of their six matches against Kiwi opposition to eclipse the Chiefs on the ladder. That’s an almost impossible prospect and with more victories expected to come for the Chiefs, the focus will shift to simply improving game by game and preparing for the inevitable run-ins with New Zealand opposition at the tail-end of the season.

Despite sitting in a pretty spot, the season certainly hasn’t been a booming success for the Chiefs to date, with home losses at the hands of the Crusaders and Blues a cause for big frustrations.

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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific.
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What the All Blacks squad could look like halfway through Super Rugby Pacific.

Following the 25-0 defeat to the Blues two weekends ago, Clayton McMillan and the Chiefs had to take stock of where the team sat nearing the halfway point of their campaign.

“We lost a couple of games at home and we really like to see our home ground as a bit of a fortress [where] other teams find extremely hard to come and win,” McMillan said following Friday’s match. “So it hurt us deeply because we let our strong support base down.

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“I look back at the last couple of weeks, we’ve been searching for a few solutions to some of the problems that we were encountering, particularly around the breakdown. It was particularly pertinent because we certainly read a lot about how well the Waratahs loose forward trio has been operating, that they really wanted to slow our ball down and I think maybe [Charlie] Gamble may have got one turnover, or a couple of turnovers, but pretty much just got shut out of the game.

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“We’re making some improvements but there’s still a long way to go and we’ll strive to get better and hopefully be there at the business end of the season.”

The other big lesson the Chiefs took out of their defeat to the Blues concerned how to play against a team who’s playing with a numbers disadvantage. The Blues had three players sin-binned throughout the match yet the Chiefs weren’t able to earn themselves any five-pointers.

On Friday, however, the Chiefs banked three tries in the first 20 minutes, during which the Waratahs were reduced to 14 and 13 men thanks to a red and yellow card.

“I was actually really pleased with the way we played during that period,” Chiefs captain Sam Cane said of the opening quarter. “We didn’t overplay our hand but we were really accurate and we managed to make them pay.”

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And while neither Cane nor McMillan would have been happy to see the Waratahs come roaring back into the contest shortly after halftime, bringing the score to within three points after the Chiefs had taken such a sizeable early lead, the captain was pleased with how his team responded.

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“You can stop and think like that (dwell on what’s gone wrong) – I could’ve thought like that,” Cane said of the tense period following a run-away try from Jake Gordon which saw the score sitting at 30-27 in the Chiefs’ favour. “But in the heat of the moment, there’s actually no point dwelling on what the current situation is, it’s literally just focussing on how we’re going to improve our situation where we are right now and what’s the most important thing – it’s normally the next task which for us after that intercept was the kick-off.

“So if you allow yourself to think and get anxious or consumed [by] those thoughts it sort of takes away from what you actually need to do and I was just really proud of the way the guys didn’t let that feeling [creep in] where maybe a lot of people watching would have been feeling that. So long as you sort of stay in the moment and focus on that, the boys did really well there to swing it back in our favour.”

“We’ve seen heaps of times in New Zealand – and I imagine it’s been the same here – teams will get away but the other teams are too good, they’re always gonna fight back,” added McMillan. “And often when down by 15 or 20 points, you really have nothing to lose; chance your arm and a few bounces of the ball go your way and all of a sudden, you’re right back in the game.

“It’s just about trying to minimise the damage and wrestle momentum back in your own favour. And we fortunately did that but it could easily have gone the other way.”

With cards so prevalent in this year’s Super Rugby Pacific competition – the 12 reds dished out is already a season record – the Chiefs will certainly have to play more fixtures in 2022 with or against fewer than a full complement of players but their relatively strong discipline coupled with some greater patience with the ball in hand will go a long way to ensuring some pleasing results later in the campaign.

Having righted some wrongs from earlier in the season in their win over the Waratahs on Friday night, the Chiefs will now enter the final five weeks of the round-robin with confidence they’re moving in the right direction.

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