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The old enemy

The Chiefs might have secured their place in the Super Rugby Aotearoa final two weeks’ ago, but that doesn’t mean that the focus in the camp shifted straight away to that game against the Crusaders in Christchurch.

I’ve been in and out of the Chiefs camp this season and got the full-time call-up last week after a few guys went down with injuries, so I’ve experienced what it’s been like in camp in dribs and drabs. I can tell you that even though there’s a huge game coming up on Saturday, all of the focus last week was on the Blues.

I was lucky enough to play against our old rivals in the weekend and the whole squad had the challenge to not look too far head into the future.

There’s a lot of pride and a lot of mana that goes with playing the Blues, especially at Eden Park. So trying to keep the focus on the weekend was a good test of the boys’ mental fortitude.

It was great to be a part of the 23 because it really was one for the future – a whole bunch of young guys and one old has-been!

All the guys in there deserved a crack at playing because I’ve been in campaigns where guys have just trained the whole year and not had the chance to play. But the guys on Saturday, I’ve trained with them all year and they’ve put the main squad under pressure all season and made them better heading into their games and prepared them the best they could – which is why the Chiefs have done so well this year.

The Chiefs travelled to Auckland with an inexperienced side on Saturday evening but kept themselves in the contest until the final minutes of the Super Rugby Aotearoa match. (Photo by Brett Phibbs/Photosport)

You don’t really get to see that in professional sport, where you can make wholesale changes like that. It’s a reward for those guys that have worked their butts off all season. It sucks training all year and not getting a game and just doing the ‘shit sessions’ before the captain’s run or the day of the game where you get thrashed in the gym so it’s awesome that they got the opportunity and excitement levels were unbelievable.

We may not have got the win, but everyone on that park proved themselves worthy of wearing that Chiefs jersey and I’m sure a number of those guys will go onto have long careers. They were disappointed that they lost – which is exactly what you want from young fellas – but they can be proud of how they went out there and played.

Now, the focus finally does turn to the Crusaders – and the chance for us to go down to Christchurch and have another crack at winning a title.

On the one hand, you’ve got to stick to your processes ahead of the match. You prepare for it like it’s just another game, but it’s really not.

There might be one night where you normally don’t stretch but because it’s the final, you tick all the boxes. Some boys like to have a few cheat meals during the week but they’ll be thinking differently ahead of this match with the Crusaders.

The boys can feel that it’s a final and there’s a real buzz around the group so that means everything is kicked up a notch.

You’re making sure you’re covering off absolutely everything. Little things that you might sometimes let slide, that stuff isn’t overlooked. There might be one night where you normally don’t stretch but because it’s the final, you tick all the boxes. Some boys like to have a few cheat meals during the week but they’ll be thinking differently ahead of this match with the Crusaders.

Going down to Christchurch is going to be intense. They’ve been the benchmark for so long and they bring the A-game out of you which means there are going to be some big collisions come Saturday.

In 2012 and 2013, when we on our Super Rugby titles, I remember the two semi-finals we played against the Crusaders and it was the defence that won us the game.

Rugby’s a really simple game. It’s a battle, you’ve got to win those physical exchanges and you have to be brutal and you have to be physical in those encounters.

Liam Messam races away to score a try for the Chiefs in their Super Rugby final with the Crusaders in 2012. (Photo by Bruce Lim/Photosport)

It’s always been a hard battle against the Crusaders and that rivalry has sort of popped up from two championship years of ours. We always used to take things to the edge against them – and they didn’t like the way we used to do things.

I think just because they’ve been the benchmark for so long. You want to get stuck in but it’s in a respectful way. You’re just trying to get in there – and you have to, because they’re a bloody good side and they’ve been that way for so long now. They get the best out of you, which is what you want in a competitive world.

From what I’ve heard from reading the paper and stuff, the Crusaders boys get up for every Chiefs battle and they know what’s coming – but our boys know what’s coming as well.

It’s funny because it was probably an earlier game in that 2012 year that set us up on the path to that first title.

Belief and confidence is a huge thing in the game of rugby. The Chiefs razzle dazzle comes with confidence – it’s not off the cuff. The boys train hard and work hard for those things to happen.

It’s one that really sticks out to me, our first match against the Crusaders that season and it was actually in Napier.

We were still a really young team, no one knew our players – they weren’t superstars like they are now. They were just young men, grinding away.

We went down there with a really young pack; it was Ben Tameifuna’s second start. The first scrum, I think we might have actually pushed them off the ball, shunted them backwards. It was an All Blacks pack and we dominated them.

From there, the belief just grew in the team and in the boys. That was a pivotal game in that season because it was such a young team and they hadn’t really been tested before and went down to Napier with no expectations. But the boys got the job done and from there, the belief got us through. We realised that we could achieve big things.

Belief and confidence is a huge thing in the game of rugby. The Chiefs razzle dazzle comes with confidence – it’s not off the cuff. The boys train hard and work hard for those things to happen.

An unheralded Chiefs side surprised the rugby world when they bested an All Blacks-laden Crusaders team in Napier in 2012. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

When you’re not confident, you don’t want to throw those passes or you get yourself wound up and don’t play to your abilities. That’s what I learnt from 2012 and obviously with the team this year, they’re riding high on some real good confidence and real good energy at the moment – which we can hopefully channel into a good performance on Saturday.

The other game that really stands out to me – and I’m sure it’s one that a lot of people remember – is our win over the Crusaders in the final round of 2007.

We needed a victory to give us a chance of making the semis and my old mate Sione Lauaki took that to heart, putting in an amazing performance. That was the game where he put that massive fend on Richie McCaw – the GOAT, and he also put in a little grubber for Sitiveni Sivivatu to score.

We got the win, 30-26, but it wasn’t enough to get us into the finals in the end.

Of course, it’s a different situation this year. Our fate is completely in our hands and if we can head down to Christchurch and play our hearts out, then I’d give us a pretty good chance of upsetting our rivals down south.

More columns from Liam Messam

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