Chiefs comfortable being underdogs

Date published: July 25 2013

Despite being written off by many ahead of Saturday's clash with the Crusaders, the Chiefs are comfortable being underdogs.

Despite being written off by many enthusiasts ahead of Saturday's semi-final with the Crusaders, the Chiefs are comfortable with the underdog label.

The defending champions face the Crusaders at Hamilton in an all-New Zealand clash to be followed by South African champions the Bulls hosting Australian conference winners the Brumbies in Pretoria.

History favours the Chiefs and Bulls, the top two teams in the regular season, with the record books showing that in the 17-year history of Super Rugby only once has the crown gone to a side that did not host a semi-final.

That was when the seven-times champions Crusaders won in 1999, and after a slow start this year their scintillating form at the business end has raised speculation they could repeat the rare feat.

The Chiefs, already victims of Crusaders power when thrashed 43-15 in the penultimate round of the league, were impressed with how the Crusaders despatched the Reds 38-9 last week.

“They're playing well at the moment,” said assistant coach Tom Coventry.

“The whole country knows that, the whole world does, they have an international pack.”

But head coach Dave Rennie added there was no need for alarm bells.

“I think most of the country is writing us off, which is not a bad thing, but we're happy with where we're heading and we've got a pretty happy bunch who are keen to make amends from the last time we played them,” he said.

The Chiefs beat the Crusaders the first time they met this year in May and have been bolstered by news that All Blacks Brodie Retallick, Liam Messam, Ben Afeaki and Aaron Cruden are over niggles picked up in their last match against the Blues.

However, they are light in the midfield where Tim Nanai-Williams requires a groin operation.

The Crusaders, in their 12th consecutive semi-final and desperate to end a five-year title drought, have kept the same line-up that demolished the Reds.

That means Richie McCaw, returning from seven months away from the game, remains on the bench as coach Todd Blackadder retains the loose trio of Matt Todd, George Whitelock and Kieran Read who carried the Crusaders through the year.

“Those guys have played outstandingly well and by doing that we are putting the team first, and if you were to ask Richie he would say exactly the same,” Blackadder explained.

A Chiefs win means they will host next week's final while a Crusaders victory would make the Canterbury-based franchise travel to meet the winner of the Bulls and Brumbies' semi where the South African's are overwhelming favourites.

They have altitude and a fiercely parochial band of supporters in their favour at Loftus Versfeld as well as an impressive home record of never losing a finals game in Pretoria.

But neither side can claim to be in top form with the Brumbies scraping into the semis on the back of five penalties to beat the Central Cheetahs 15-13 while the Bulls last outing saw them beaten by the Stormers 30-13.

Brumbies and former South Africa coach Jake White spiced up the game when he described Australian players as smarter than South Africans, and mind games have been foremost on the mind of Bulls coach Frans Ludeke during the week.

“This match will be about us and our ability and drive to make them play the game at our tempo and to our game plan,” he revealed.

“For that we will need to be accurate and execute the big plays well.”

The Brumbies can take heart beating the Bulls in Canberra 23-20 earlier this year, but ominously when they clashed at Loftus last year they outscored the Bulls five tries to two but lost the game 36-34.