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RUGBYPASS+ That winning feeling

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That winning feeling By Tom Vinicombe

After a torrid year, the Chiefs have finally rediscovered the lost art of winning.

Nine months ago, almost to the day, the Chiefs had just suffered another heart wrenching loss – this time to the Highlanders.

Having built a 24-0 lead after 20 minutes of play, the Chiefs eventually fell 33-31, with Patelesio Tomkinson scoring on fulltime to deny the Chiefs their first win of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season.

The loss marked the Chiefs’ sixth on the trot – with five of those defeats coming by seven points or fewer. After an excellent start to Warren Gatland’s tenure as head coach during the pre-COVID competition, the wheels had well and truly fallen off.

Gatland was crestfallen after the game.

“Sometimes in teams, winning becomes a habit, and losing does, and calls go against you, and you’ve got to be smart in terms of how you get out of that, so we’re pretty disappointed about that,” he said.

“We’ve just got to be a little bit better than we are when we come under a little bit of pressure. We know we’ve got some young players and we’re missing some experience and giving guys an opportunity, but with that lead, we should have been comfortable with closing the game out.”

Patelesio Tomkinson scored in the final play of the last year’s match between the Chiefs and Highlanders in Hamilton to break the Chiefs’ hearts. (Photo by Jeremy Ward/Photosport)

The pain didn’t end there for the former Super Rugby champions.

It was a similar story against the Blues a week later, with the Chiefs behind by four and pummelling the try line in the dying seconds of the game – but there was to be no reward for their sustained pressure, with the Blues winning a penalty to end the match.

Losses to the Hurricanes and Crusaders followed to round out the season before Clayton McMillan’s tenure with the side kicked off earlier this year.

After their opening game, it appeared fans were set for more of the same, with the Chiefs building a 14-point lead over the Highlanders before ultimately succumbing to some divine destruction at the hands of Jona Nareki.

Sometimes in teams winning becomes a habit, and losing does, and calls go against you, and you’ve got to be smart in terms of how you get out of that.

Warren Gatland

Despite mounting serious challenges week after week, the Chiefs could not get any wins on the board.

Rarely throughout the eventual 11-match losing streak were they blown off the park. Their games were thrilling for the neutrals, who tuned in every weekend seemingly just to see how they would snatch another defeat from the jaws of victory, while the fans were left flummoxed at their side’s apparent inability to get over the line.

It was, as Gatland said last year, as if losing had become a habit.

Then, against all odds, the Chiefs broke their duck against the Hurricanes in Round 3 of this year’s competition.

Trailing by 19 points approaching the 60-minute mark, the punching bags of Super Rugby Aotearoa sparked to life and a Luke Jacobson try in the final moments of the game handed the Chiefs a come-from-behind 35-29 win.

The Chiefs celebrate following the win over the Hurricanes that ended their record losing streak. (Photo by Grant Down/Photosport)

A week later, a gutsy 15-12 win came at the expense of the Blues, with Damian McKenzie dashing over for the winning try in the final play of the game.

McKenzie was on hand to deliver the fell blow against the Highlanders last weekend too, nailing a penalty in extra time to give the Chiefs their first win over the southerners since 2019.

Perhaps the most impressive win of all came in last night’s clutch victory over the competition-leading Crusaders in Hamilton.

Yes, the Crusaders haven’t been on top of their game for the past few weeks, looking out of sorts against the Highlanders and then narrowly avoiding defeat against the Hurricanes, but this is still a side that have won four Super Rugby titles on the trot – they know a thing or two about winning the matches that count.

Last year, games like that, we probably wouldn’t have won those but this year we’re digging deep.

Chiefs flanker Lachlan Boshier

While the Crusaders looked dangerous whenever they had the ball, the Chiefs eventually weathered them down and McKenzie, for the third match in a row, scored the late-game points to hand victory to the home side.

After spending a year in the doldrums, winning is now becoming a habit.

Returning flanker Lachlan Boshier acknowledged as much after last night’s win.

“[There’s] definitely a better feel in the environment,” he said. “Last year, games like that, we probably wouldn’t have won those but this year we’re digging deep and we’ve got that belief and it’s showing in the results.

“All the games have been down to the wire, it’s been last-minute plays. It just shows the character of the fellas and our culture in general. Digging deep for each other and winning – the boys are loving it.”

It’s a trait that was a hallmark of the Chiefs during the early stages of the Dave Rennie years, when the Chiefs won back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.

Dave Rennie’s Chiefs were excellent at securing close victories. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Photosport)

In those two years, the Chiefs played in 20 matches that were decided by seven points or fewer. They won 15. Contrast that with 2020, when the Chiefs lost all six of their close encounters.

Winning those fifty-fifty games is a sign of a good team – one that’s able to handle the pressure of a tight contest.

Luck plays a part too and it certainly had an influence on the Chiefs’ poorer results over the past 12 months.

Last year, the Chiefs had to make do without the likes of Angus Ta’avao, Atu Moli, Nepo Laulala, Tyler Ardron, Michael Allardice, Sam Cane and Luke Jacobson for much of the year due to untimely injuries. That issue hasn’t reared its ugly head again in 2021.

It also helps that their most important players have started to rediscover their top form. Damian McKenzie was nowhere near his best last year while Anton Lienert-Brown was flat at best when kicking off the current season. That pair, combined with the likes of Samisoni Taukei’aho, Angus Ta’avao, Tupou Vaa’i, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Luke Jacobson and Brad Weber have been some of the best in the competition over the past two rounds of action.

Now that the Chiefs are back to their winning ways, they have a strong shot at making the grand final in a few weeks’ time, providing they can knock off the Blues in Auckland at the start of next month.

Regardless of what happens in the remaining two weeks of the regular season, Clayton McMillan has helped restore some pride in the Chiefs jersey and it will certainly raise more than a few eyebrows when Warren Gatland returns to the fold next year, with McMillan stepping back into an assistant role.

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