Super Rugby preview: Chiefs

Date published: February 5 2015

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With Super Rugby now just days away, we preview each of the teams in the competition ahead of the new season. Next up, the Chiefs.

Missing out on the treble last year, the Chiefs will be eyeing the summit once again inspired by the return of Sonny Bill Williams and with the IRB Player for the Year, Brodie Retallick, in their ranks. Add in a few more exciting backs and an experience coaching unit headed by Dave Rennie, combined with the experience of titles in 2012 and 2013, and you get a promising blend. Put it this way, no one is writing the Chiefs off from winning the New Zealand Conference and being in contention for what would be a third title in four years.

Last Year: A combination of the pressure of gunning for a treble along with serious injuries led to the Chiefs season crumbling away early. Their campaign finished in the Qualifers against the Brumbies in Canberra – a crazy contest with the Chiefs at one point behind 22-3 before only losing out by two points. Aaron Cruden couldn’t convert the chance to level the scores with only a few minutes left, handing the Brumbies victory.

Even though they made the playoffs, the Chiefs however only won eight of their 16 games – with two draws and eight bonus points proving to be crucial. Oddly enough those two draws came in consecutive weeks, 34-34 with the Bulls and 43-43 with the Cheetahs. The Chiefs might not have been at their best, but they were entertaining as ever.

After losing three times in their first 11 games, they lost three in a row following their Round 14 bye and in the process gave the Crusaders too much of an advantage in the NZ Conference.

This year: First off, the fixtures. The Chiefs will get an early chance for revenge when the Brumbies visit in Round 2, the first of three tough games at home against the Crusaders and Highlanders. Rennie’s men will then face the Sharks and Stormers on tour in South Africa straight after – a tough opening stretch.

From then onwards matters seem a lot simpler, with trips to the Force and Reds. The New Zealand Conference last year was a class apart, with the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Highlanders finishing so strongly.

Whether that happens again remains to be seen, but the Chiefs backline will certainly be sparked by the return of Hosea Gear and Sonny Bill Williams, especially when you consider that Tim Nanai-Williams, James Lowe and Tom Marshall are all in the squad.

An improved lineout though is a must, given their low success rate last year of 81.4 percent.

Their squad has undergone some turnover – with Tanerau Latimer, Gareth Anscombe, Asaeli Tikoirotuma and more all having moved on. If the Chiefs evolution goes smoothly, then they can contend again.

Key Players: Absolutely vital for any Chiefs success is the fitness of Aaron Cruden. 2014 was an interesting year for the double Super Rugby winner, certainly off the field, but he remains a creative master and an accurate goalkicker of the highest order. Should he pick up an injury, then young Damian McKenzie would be thrust into the spotlight.

Latimer departing puts the onus on Sam Cane to really nail down the Chiefs openside role, while Augustine Pulu has to rise to the occasion with Tawera Kerr-Barlow seriously injured last year.

Players to watch: The two-metre presence of Matt Symons looks set for a big year in the Chiefs engine room, possibly alongside Brodie Retallick. Symons is in fact English, with speculation this week linking him with a move back to the Premiership next season. The Chiefs captain during pre-season, Dave Rennie has suggested that he may continue in that role or be used as a co-captain. Symons brings athleticism and power.

Of course in the backs, all eyes will be on one man. Sonny Bill Williams returns with the side for who his last game was the Super Rugby Final win over the Sharks in 2012. Stints in Japan and Rugby League have followed but Williams has now returned to the scene of his success. He showed no signs of having lost his touch for the sport during the November Tests with the All Blacks.

SBW could well be partnered by Seta Tamanivalu. The 2014 ITM Cup Player of the Year was phenomenal for Taranaki and is expected to be a breakout star in this year’s competition.

Players in: Michael Allardice (Hawke’s Bay), Johan Bardoul (Waikato), Hosea Gear (Honda Heat, Japan), Mitchell Graham (Taranaki), Bryce Heem (Tasman), Michael Leitch (Toshiba Brave Lupus, Japan), Quentin MacDonald (Munster, Ireland), Damian McKenzie (Waikato), Sean Polwart (Auckland), Seta Tamanivalu (Taranaki), Siate Tokolahi (Canterbury), Sonny Bill Williams (Roosters, NRL).

Players out: Bundee Aki (Connacht, Ireland), Gaeth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues, Wales), Nick Crosswell (Newport Gwent Dragons, Wales), Hika Elliot, Ross Filipo (retired), Robbie Fruean (Crusaders), Josh Hohneck (Highlanders), Tanerau Latimer (Toshiba Brave Lupus, Japan), Mils Muliaina (Connacht, Ireland), Mahonri Schwalger (retired), Dwayne Sweeney (Fukuoka Sanix Blues, Japan), Kane Thompson (Newcastle Falcons, England), Asaeli Tikoirotuma (Harlequins, England).

Prospects: The Chiefs should certainly be expected to make the Qualifiers, but we’ll learn more about their Championship credentials after that tough opening run of fixtures. There is so much firepower out in the backs that tries will be no problem whatsoever, which makes keeping important players like Cruden, Cane and Retallick healthy fundamental for any success. Contenders.

Fixtures:
Sat, 14 Feb v Blues (QBE Stadium, Albany)
Fri, 20 Feb v Brumbies (Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth)
Sat, 28 Feb v Crusaders (Waikato Stadium, Hamilton)
Fri, 6 March v Highlanders (Waikato Stadium, Hamilton)
Sat, 14 March v Stormers (Newlands Stadium, Cape Town)
Sat, 21 March v Sharks (Kings Park, Durban)
Sat, 28 March v Cheetahs (Waikato Stadium, Hamilton)
Sat, 4 April v Blues (Waikato Stadium, Hamilton)
Round 9: BYE
Fri, 17 April v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Fri, 24 April v Force (Waikato Stadium, Hamilton)
Sat, 2 May v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Round 13: BYE
Sat, 16 May v Hurricanes (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Fri, 22 May v Bulls (Waikato Stadium, Hamilton)
Sat, 30 May v Highlanders (Rugby Park Stadium, Invercargill)
Sat, 6 June v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Sat, 13 June v Hurricanes (Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth)

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