Chiefs looking to become 3rd Kiwi Champion

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Chiefs centre Sonny Bill Williams gets his famous offload away as Bismarck du Plessis pays close attention. Photo by Getty Images.

The Chiefs will look to become the sixth team to win a Super Rugby Championship, a victory that could see the balance of New Zealand rugby power shift North to Hamilton.

Coach Dave Rennie couldn’t deny he was “excited”, after what has been the longest calendar season in Super Rugby history.

“It has been a long campaign. Things have gone pretty quickly, obviously we are still really excited to still be in the race,” the Chiefs mentor said.

In the early days of professional rugby it was the Blues, but as Super Rugby and the Tri-Nations came into fruition, the Crusaders ripped the tag as the powerhouse New Zealand franchise with a victory in Eden Park in the 1998 Final, the first of seven Super Rugby championships for the red and blacks.

However the beauty of the Super Rugby tournament over its seventeen years is that almost every champion has had to dethrone another to succeed.

For the NZ teams, in 1998 it was the Crusaders over the Blues, in 2003 it was the Blues over the Crusaders, and in 2004 it was the Brumbies over the Crusaders, while throughout the Super 14 era every one of the Bulls three titles came after semi-final success over the Crusaders.

And the trend continued at Waikato Stadium on Saturday night, with the Chiefs having to overcome the last Kiwi team to win Super Rugby and the 2011 New Zealand Conference champions.

The 20-17 Semi-Final victory moved the Chiefs into their second Super Rugby Final.

“Making the Final certainly was our goal, and I don’t think everyone agreed back in November, but belief grows with performance, and knocking over the Crusaders and Blues early in the piece probably helped that,” Rennie said.

Their first Super Rugby Final was contested in 2009, when they came up against the Bulls and suffered the biggest loss in Super Rugby Final history, going down 61-17 in a match where the South Africans were in a merciless mood.

Seven players from the current squad – Craig Clarke, Liam Messam, Tanerau Latimer, Sona Taumalolo, Richard Kahui, Hika Elliot and Lelia Masaga – featured in that game (Elliot was on the bench), and while All Blacks centre Kahui is out of action, co-captain Craig Clarke is confident of taking his place on the field despite injury concerns.

“It is 50/50. Clarke has a Grade Two medial ligament injury so normally it is six to eight weeks,” Rennie said.

“If we can get him back to where he was when he left the field (after the Crusaders) then we will hopefully get him on.”

With possible Super Rugby glory just a game away, it would cap off a solid period of rugby for the region.

The Chiefs as we now know them go back to 1999 when the New Zealand Rugby Union engineered a territorial swap in 1999 which saw the Chiefs “return” Northland and North Harbour to the Blues franchise, and gain Counties-Manukau and Thames Valley, which outside of South Africa has been the only geographical overhauling of a Super Rugby franchise.

In 2004 new coach Ian Foster, who replaced Kevin Greene, and captain and Waikato stalwart Jono Gibbes, took the Chiefs to their first ever Super Rugby Finals Series – but lost back-to-back matches to the eventual championship winning Brumbies in the final match of the regular season and the semi-final.

While it would be another five years before the Chiefs tasted knockout action, they were always considered a strong outfit, finishing no lower than seventh from 2005 to 2008, before reaching their second Super Rugby Finals Series before losing to the Bulls.

Like the recently defeated title holding Reds, the Chiefs have one of the youngest squads in the competition, breaking the trend of vastly experienced championship contenders in the mould of the Blues, Crusaders, Brumbies and Bulls.

Further to this is the fact that the Chiefs have no Super Rugby centurions on their honour board (although Keven Mealamu, Caleb Ralph, Tana Umaga and Leon MacDonald had stints with the Waikato based franchise during their 100 plus Super Rugby game careers), and this aspect is mirrored in terms of their international experience.

Indeed their most experienced All Black is the injured Richard Kahui with 16 test caps, although Samoan internationals Mahonri Schwalger (36) and Kane Thompson (22) provide some old heads to the Chiefs pack.

Rennie admitted that despite this there were high expectations coming into this season.
“Realistically from the start we had a goal of winning the championship, but we thought it might be a couple of years away with the young guys we had, but they have found their feet quickly at this level,” he said.

“We’ve picked some guys from the 20’s program (Under-20), and they’ve responded really quickly and really well, and the group has gelled.”

Victory for the Chiefs would see them become the third Kiwi side (after the Blues and Crusaders) to win a Super Rugby title, and make it the 13th season where the home finalist has won the overall crown.

The Chiefs have also won 12 regular season games, breaking the 11-game New Zealand record set by the Crusaders (2002, 2006, 2008 and 2011), while their 444 regular season points and 47 tries scored is a franchise record, overtaking the 2007 mark of 373 points and 43 tries.

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