Ahead of the 2017 season we take a closer look at each of the 18 teams participating in this year’s tournament. Next up, the Chiefs.
A semi-final exit for the Chiefs against the Hurricanes in Wellington ended what was a decent year in such a tough New Zealand Conference. 11 games won and just four losses before they thumped the Stormers at Newlands, but then came unstuck against the eventual champions.
In Dave Rennie’s last season in charge before he moves to Glasgow, expect them to be right in the mix again in the upcoming campaign.
Last year: It was an improvement on 2015 as they went one step further, getting to the semi-finals before that 25-9 loss to the Hurricanes at Westpac Stadium. As mentioned they won 11 of their 15 regular season matches, scoring a whopping 68 tries in those fixtures, before they headed to the Stormers in the last-eight and put them to the sword, winning 60-21 in an eight-try rout. The ‘Canes though had their number.
They had lost several senior players such as Liam Messam, Jamie Mackintosh, Ben Tameifuna, Michael Fitzgerald, Tim Nanai-Williams and Matt Symons in the off-season but still they looked an outstanding team. Damian McKenzie was a constant threat while Brad Weber, Seta Tamanivalu, James Lowe and many others were a joy to watch as the brand of rugby they played was regularly too much for the opposition.
Aaron Cruden was outstanding as a playmaker and leader while in Anton Lienert-Brown a new talent emerged. The young centre would go on to impress for the All Blacks and despite not having Sonny Bill Williams (Sevens and injury) and Charlie Ngatai (injury) the Chiefs impressed as McKenzie (ten) and Tamanivalu (nine) led their try count while the former topped Super Rugby for carries, clean breaks and defenders beaten.
This year: Notable departures include Tamanivalu, Augustine Pulu and Williams, but they have new blood in the form of Nanai-Williams, who returns from Japan, while Johnny Fa’auli is an astute signing in midfield. There is concern over when Ngatai will return following his ongoing concussion problems but they are well stocked at centre as Lienert-Brown, Nanai-Williams, Fa’auli and Stephen Donald can all do a job.
We have already mentioned how crucial the likes of Cruden, McKenzie and Lowe are to how this Chiefs side play but it is the ability of their forward pack, who are so comfortable in possession, that makes them a special unit. Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick, Tom Sanders and Taleni Seu will bring plenty as they look to edge the Hurricanes, Highlanders, Crusaders and Blues as top dog in New Zealand. They’ll be in the mix.
Key players: Four All Blacks will be vital to the Chiefs’ hopes this year as Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, Aaron Cruden and Damian McKenzie look to ignite another title push. Retallick’s a driving force up front while Cane has added greater physicality to his game of late as he looks to nail down New Zealand’s seven jersey.
Cruden meanwhile is such an intelligent leader in this side and will be desperate to depart for Montpellier with the Super Rugby trophy in his hands, with McKenzie’s X-factor set to be a big factor in whether he does or not.
Players to watch: On the back of disappointing news that Weber will miss six months due to a fractured femur, a lot will rest on the form of Tawera Kerr-Barlow at scrum-half this term. Pulu has departed for the Blues so from three outstanding nines they’re down to just one in 2017.
As mentioned, keep an eye on Fa’auli when he gets his chance at centre while Tom Sanders should press on after an impressive 2016.
Prospects: Losing Weber is a big blow while the departure of Tamanivalu and ongoing absence of Ngatai could hurt the Chiefs. They have superb talent, of that there is no doubt, but might come up short to most likely the Hurricanes and Highlanders in their Conference.
Expect them to sneak into the knockout stage but it’s likely to be another exit in the quarter-final or semi-final to cap the end of Rennie’s tenure.
Players In: Sefo Kautai (Waikato), Liam Polwart (Bay of Plenty), Finlay Christie (Tasman), Solomon Alaimalo (Northland), Johnny Fa’auli (Taranaki), Tim Nanai-Williams (Ricoh Black Rams)
Players Out: Pauliasi Manu (Blues), Siate Tokolahi (Highlanders), Hiroshi Yamashita (Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers), Rhys Marshall (Munster), Johan Bardoul (Yamaha Júbilo), Sam Henwood (Counties Manukau), Tevita Koloamatangi (Tasman), Ma’ama Vaipulu (Castres), Kayne Hammington (Highlanders), Augustine Pulu (Blues), Seta Tamanivalu (Crusaders), Sam Vaka (Counties Manukau), Sonny Bill Williams (Blues), Latu Vaeno (Taranaki), Andrew Horrell (Coca-Cola Red Sparks)
Friday, February 24 v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Friday, March 3 v Blues (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)
Friday, March 10 v Hurricanes (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)
Friday, March 17 v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Round 5: BYE
Saturday, April 1 v Bulls (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)
Saturday, April 8 v Stormers (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, April 15 v Cheetahs (Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, April 22 v Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, April 29 v Sunwolves (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)
Saturday, May 6 v Reds (Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth)
Round 12: BYE
Friday, May 19 v Crusaders (ANZ National Stadium, Suva)
Friday, May 26 v Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, June 3 v Waratahs (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)
Friday, June 9 v Hurricanes (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Saturday, July 15 v Brumbies (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)