While taking out the Super Rugby Aotearoa title with just six wins from eight matches is entirely possible, doing so with just five victories under the belt seems unlikely at best. That means the Chiefs face the very real threat of being eliminated from title-contention this weekend if they can’t turn things around against the Crusaders.
Warren Gatland’s tenure with the Chiefs started so promisingly. The Waikato men went unbeaten in their first three matches, where they picked up especially important wins against the Blues and the Crusaders. By the time the competition was called off due to the global pandemic, the Chiefs were sitting on fifth place on the table with four victories from six games.
While losses at home to the Brumbies and the Hurricanes left Gatland with a few fix-ons, expectations around the country were that the Chiefs would enter the New Zealand-only edition of the competition as the biggest roadblock to the Crusaders nailing a fourth title on the bounce.
We’re now two weeks into Super Rugby Aotearoa and the public perception of the Chiefs will have shifted markedly.
The Crusaders looked lethal against the Hurricanes in their only run-out so far while the Blues have done the deed against the Hurricanes in Auckland and now the Chiefs in Hamilton.
The Chiefs also lost their first-up match against the Highlanders in Dunedin, which leaves them second bottom on the ladder – just a point ahead of the Hurricanes.
With new rules and interpretations coming into play in the new competition, there’s probably been a larger amount of luck involved in the two rounds to date than what you’d normally see in Super Rugby. Referees, players and coaches are all still coming to terms with the severity that the breakdown has been officiated and the consistency is understandably still not quite there.
That’s no excuse for the Chiefs’ losses, however. The Crusaders only had their first taste of Aotearoa action over the weekend and while they were certainly on the losing side of the penalty count, their class shone through and they scored 5 tries over the 80 minutes on a wet and windy Wellington day.
By comparison, the Chiefs have managed just two tries over their two matches, with both being scored under the roof against the Highlanders.
Unlike at the start of the year, the Chiefs have also had all of their All Blacks on unrestricted minutes.
Unfortunately, as with seasons gone by, the Gatland-coached side have rarely had a full contingent to pull from.
Nathan Harris was ruled out for the year prior to Super Rugby’s initial kick-off in January (and fellow hooker Liam Polwart retired due to concussion) while Atu Moli, Mitchell Brown, Michael Allardice and now Luke Jacobson have all been invalided for the rest of the season. Angus Ta’avao also hasn’t featured since the opening game of the campaign while Sam Cane seems to be touch and go every week and Brodie Retallick is on sabbatical.
That’s an exceptional amount of experience that the Chiefs have to manage without and while any side would struggle given the circumstances, that doesn’t let Gatland off the hook entirely.
Even before the break, when the Chiefs were winning matches, things weren’t exactly going entirely smoothly.
Of the four matches they won, the Chiefs had to overcome sizeable deficits at halftime in two of those games – against the Blues and the Crusaders. It was really only against the Waratahs and the Sunwolves – two sides that managed a solitary win each, that the Chiefs were in control for the majority of the match.
Regardless, the wins were at least coming – which can’t be said for the last two matches the Waikato men have played.
That doesn’t mean it’s time to freak out, of course.
One of the worst-performing areas for the Chiefs has been the lineout. That’s almost unavoidable, given that they’ve been shorn of their first-choice hooker as well as Brodie Retallick (on sabbatical), Allardice, Brown and Tyler Ardron.
Samison Taukei’aho has suddenly been thrust into the starting role for the Chiefs in 2020, despite being just 22 years old. By contrast, 29-year-old Codie Taylor is the only other hooker to have started a Super Rugby Aotearoa match who is hasn’t yet hit 30.
Factor in that the Chiefs are now running with a pair of 20-year-old locks, and it’s easy to see why they’re only operating with an 81% lineout success rate.
The bigger concern for Gatland will be the breakdown, where the Chiefs seem to have struggled to adapt to the new rules and have failed to build any momentum throughout their two matches or put their opposition under pressure.
Sunday’s match with the Crusaders will likely make or break the Chiefs season. If they can do the impossible and pick up a win in Christchurch (which no New Zealand team has achieved since 2016) then many of the mistakes of the last two weeks will be forgiven – though they could still come back to haunt the Chiefs later in the season.
If, on the other hand, the Chiefs fall to their third loss of the season, then it’s almost impossible to envisage any scenario except for a disappointing 2020.
No doubt, Aaron Cruden and Damian McKenzie will be the key figures over the weekend but the Chiefs will also be hoping for improved performances from Brad Weber and Anton Lienert-Brown, who’ve been uncharacteristically subdued over the past two weeks.
In the forwards, the possible returns of Cane and Brown will do wonders for the young pack’s confidence but Gatland will still be hoping for greater accuracy from his young prodigy hooker.
The Crusaders have a few injury problems of their own with captain Scott Barrett ruled out for the season and Braydon Ennor and Tom Christie still touch-and-go, but they’ll still be able to field a side oozing with confidence.
Saturday’s match-up between two unbeaten sides in the Blues and the Highlanders may technically showcase teams with better records, but given everything that’s riding on Sunday’s match for the Chiefs, it could well turn into another instant Crusaders/Chiefs classic.
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