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Where the Chiefs lost the Aotearoa final and need to improve if they hope to knock off the Crusaders in their potential Trans-Tasman rematch

By Tom Vinicombe

Trending on RugbyPass

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Super Rugby Aotearoa is done and dusted for another year.

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The Crusaders have, unsurprisingly, taken out the title for a second straight season – making it five championships on the trot for Scott Robertson.

The Chiefs mounted an admirable challenge during the season, winning five on the trot, but couldn’t pull out their best work when it really counted and will be left licking their wounds, thinking about what could have been.

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The Aotearoa Rugby Pod discuss the surprise signing by the Canterbury Crusaders of powerhouse loose forward Pablo Matera and what it means for their already stacked depth in the position in 2022.

But all is not lost for the men from the Waikato.

Super Rugby Aotearoa, after all, was really just a precursor to the main event: Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

Perhaps the matches won’t be quite as fierce nor the contests quite so close, but the first set of matches between the Australiasian neighbours in over a year should keep many a fan interested – and there’s still the possibility of one last intra-nation clash at the end of the season to really whet everyone’s appetites.

At the end of the five regular rounds of Trans-Tasman rugby, the top two sides will go head to head to crown the overall champion, and SANZAAR have made no indications that one team from each nation must be represented in said grand final.

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That means on June 19, the Crusaders and Chiefs could once again go hammer and tongs to decide the continent’s top franchise for 2021.

Of course, that’s entirely dependant on both sides maintaining their form and momentum.

Few would expect the Crusaders to self-destruct, given their unprecedented success over the past five years but the Chiefs are still a bit of a wild card.

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They’ve been the most consistent side in Super Rugby Aotearoa this year, especially after shaking off the impact of two early losses, but it’s not that long ago that they were staring down the barrel of a record losing streak.

Clayton McMillan has helped turned the side from zeros to heroes, regardless of how much of the groundwork was laid by Warren Gatland last year, but all of that could be unravelled if the season goes downhill from here.

The Chiefs start with three tough assignments – the Western Force in Perth, the Brumbies in Hamilton and the Reds in Queensland.

Given the Force’s rejuvenation in 2021, the fact that the Brumbies comfortably outplayed the Chiefs last time the sides met in Hamilton, and that the Reds are the Super Rugby AU champions, all three of those matches are very losable.

But if the Chiefs do hold it together for the remainder of the season, they’ll still have to tick three key boxes if they are to challenge the Crusaders come the Trans-Tasman final in six weeks’ time.

1. Fix the lineout woes

For whatever reason, the Chiefs’ reserve hookers always struggle to hit their lineout targets.

It was Samisoni Taukei’aho last year while both Bradley Slater and Nathan Harris have struggled for accuracy off the bench in 2021, and it kills momentum in the final quarter of any match.

Taukei’aho has never been an accurate deliverer of the ball but he appeared to have put those woes behind him during last year’s Mitre 10 Cup, while he was largely dependable in the formative stages of this year’s competition.

Things started to unravel in the final weeks, however, contributing to an overall disappointing return for the Chiefs’ lineout.

Those issues came to the fore on Saturday evening, with the Crusaders sniffling three of the Taukei’aho’s deliveries.

Throughout the past two seasons, Taukei’aho and Slater have collectively made 31 lineout delivery errors. Taukei’aho, with 18 to his name, has made the most errors of any hooker in the competition and averages one mistake every 43 minutes.

For comparison, his All Blacks counterpart on Saturday night, Codie Taylor, makes one mistake just every 76 minutes.

In this day and age, there’s no excuse for a hooker not being able to at least throw the ball in straight, but it’s something that the Chiefs have struggled with since Hika Elliot and Mahonri Schwalger left the side.

Whether McMillan needs to bring in a specialist coach or needs to change up his cattle is anyone’s guess – but something needs to give.

2. Settle on a playmaking combination

The Chiefs trialled three players at No 10 through this year’s Aotearoa campaign: Bryn Gatland, Kaleb Trask and Damian McKenzie.

Each of the three has their strengths when playing at first receiver while there are also deficientcies to their game – but that’s not something that any of the trio will be able to truly fix unless they’re afforded minutes in the saddle.

Having started the season with Gatland at first five, McMillan seemingly lost faith with the son of last year’s coach but even Trask’s opportunities were limited, before McKenzie was given a run against the Crusaders and, ultimately, Gatland was reinstated.

There’s obviously a strength to operating with a ‘horses for courses’ approach but has inconsistent selection ever really benefited a No 10?

Despite his ability to step in at first receiver, McKenzie still appeals best as a fullback who can take over the reins at will throughout a game and permanently later in the piece.

While Trask challenged the line regularly when selected at first five, there’s a feeling that Gatland is the better game controller and it’s no coincidence that the Chiefs played their worst on Saturday night once he left the field.

Then there’s Rivez Reihana – whose only reward for a season of training and toil was a handful of minutes off the bench against the Blues last weekend. With some more game time under his belt, Reihana could be the long-term successor in the No 10 jersey – but he’s unlikely to be afforded those changes against Australia’s big wigs.

Whoever the best man is to take the Chiefs forward, he should be starting at No 10 in next week’s clash with the Force and kept on for the remainder of the campaign.

Richie Mo’unga has started all nine matches for the Crusaders this year – and he looked pretty handy in the Super Rugby Aotearoa final, didn’t he?

3. Bank enough points for a home final

There’s a reason why the Crusaders have won all 25 of their knockout matches played at home since Super Rugby’s inception in 1996.

The Christchurch faithful are as one-eyed as they come and they push the Crusaders to heights they’ll never be able to achieve when playing outside the region.

Whether that’s primarily because they have an influence on the referee or simply because they help galvanise their hometown heroes is up for debate, though coach Scott Robertson was certainly appreciative of their work on Saturday night.

“We felt like everyone was on Ben O’Keeffe’s shoulders there a few times, [we heard] a few calls [saying] ‘come on, give us one,’” he said following the 24-13 win.

“We got some well-deserved ones there at the end that took the momentum back to us.”

And while the Crusaders are undefeated in home finals, the same goes for the Chiefs – although there’s a much smaller sample size to pick from.

The two times the teams met in knockout games in Hamilton, in 2012 and 2013, the Chiefs emerged triumphant and subsequently went on to record their first Super Rugby two titles.

If they’re to have any chance of crowning themselves Trans-Tasman champions this year, they’ll likely have to do it from the comforts of Waikato Stadium because when the chips are down and the game’s not going your way, it’s the hometown support that will buoy you on to victory.

That’s what happened on Saturday evening – and it’s what could happen on June 19, if the Chiefs can bank enough points throughout the upcoming competition to have home advantage for the grand final.

Of course, that would mean no early-season slip-ups, as was the case against the Highlanders this year.

If the Chiefs can stay consistent and keep the wins coming then a home final is very much achievable and it’s the type of advantage that could swing the battle in their favour.

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Where the Chiefs lost the Aotearoa final and need to improve if they hope to knock off the Crusaders in their potential Trans-Tasman rematch

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