With the Super Rugby finalists now decided we take a look at the teams who missed out on this week’s fixture. First up, it’s the Chiefs.
Their semi-final performance shouldn’t take away from what was an impressive season from the two-time champions, who weren’t expected to challenge after Ben Tameifuna, Jamie Mackintosh, Liam Squire, Tim Nanai-Williams, Tom Marshall, Hosea Gear and Bryce Heem’s exits. Sonny Bill Williams and Liam Messam were also absent due to All Blacks Sevens commitments which made a shot at glory unlikely with the pundits.
How wrong that pre-campaign prediction was as Aaron Cruden returned from an injury-hit 2015 to show just what an assured figure he is at number 10 while new stars were born in the shape of Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown and Tom Sanders. All three players are under 22.
Things got off on the right foot for Dave Rennie’s side as they won at the Crusaders, but then the Lions announced themselves on the 2016 season with a win in Hamilton. That sparked the Chiefs to life as they went on a seven-game winning run that kept them top until Round 11.
McKenzie’s star was born as he tore oppositions to pieces from full-back and, complimented superbly by James Lowe, Brad Weber and Cruden, this backline helped make the Chiefs the team to beat. They were flying even without the injured Michael Leitch, with Sanders flourishing.
Only their second defeat of the season then came in Round 11 when the Highlanders prevailed in Hamilton, and with the Crusaders breathing down their neck, it was the seven-time champions who moved top. At this point the New Zealand conference was becoming a four-horse sprint.
Three wins and two further losses rounded out their regular-season, with arguably their worst performance coming at the Waratahs. However, the one that possibly hurt the most was the Round 17 defeat at the Highlanders, which meant they finished as sixth seed and had to travel.
Their first destination was Cape Town where they faced a Stormers outfit who hadn’t met a New Zealand team all year. The hosts were in for a major shock as the Chiefs looked devastating in a 60-21 victory that set up a trip to the Hurricanes – a game they would enter confident.
What happened in Wellington few saw coming as this showing topped the ‘Tahs loss in terms of disappointment. The Chiefs had early chances to take a firm grip on the game but in hindsight made the wrong decisions before uncharacteristic errors brought to an end a dire evening.
Once the dust has settled they can look forward with confidence. There’s real talent for Rennie to work with while they’ll also hopefully have Charlie Ngatai and Nepo Laulala back in action for another push to make it three Super Rugby titles. This time don’t bet against it.
Best player: We’ve mentioned Cruden, Lowe, Sanders and Weber but the year Damian McKenzie had was something special. He finished with 10 tries, 215 carries, 31 clean breaks, 67 defenders beaten, 1304 metres, 28 offloads and 199 points. What a campaign from this 21-year-old.