The Chiefs have proved themselves to be more than a one-hit wonder and deserve to win the 2013 Super Rugby title, writes JON CARDINELLI.
What right do the Chiefs have to be in the final? This question was asked by many ahead of the 2012 decider and is being asked yet again ahead of the 2013 championship match. What is it that makes this Chiefs side so special?
At the start of the current season, I tipped them to win the competition. I cited a balanced approach, the rotation of key players and combinations, as well as a strong culture, as the ingredients to a successful formula. Veteran New Zealand rugby writer Marc Hinton had called them the 'Moneyball Men' in 2012, and if anything they were even more true to the name in 2013 given that they were operating without Sonny Bill Williams.
My view changed as the competition approached the play-offs, the Crusaders started to build momentum and the Chiefs' challenge began to falter. I picked the Crusaders to beat the Chiefs in the semi-final as I felt the Cantabrians were the better side, both in terms of form and personnel. The Crusaders boasted more international players who knew how to succeed in a play-off situation.
Like so many pundits, I underestimated the mettle and the physical virtues of this Chiefs side.
The tournament stats after the league rounds should have been a clue that the Chiefs are worthy contenders for the title. They finished the league stage at the top of the overall log but, again, it was the way they played that served as a sign of their championship quality.
The Chiefs conceded the second-fewest tries in 2012. They were not as miserly in 2013, finishing ninth for tries conceded in the league phase. In the play-off stages, however, they showed their discipline in this department. The semi-final against the Crusaders was won by their defence; from the intercept try of Aaron Cruden to the never-say-die collective effort that shut out the Crusaders at the death.
Many believed that they would lack an X factor on attack following the departure of Williams. This hasn't been the case.
After 16 league games, the Chiefs led the stats for linebreaks. They also finished with the most tries scored.
There was balance in their game in that they concentrated equally on attack and defence. There was also a balance in their attack in that they kicked as much as they ran.
According to the stats, they were second only to the Southern Kings in terms of the average time spent without the ball. What this suggests is that they backed their defence, as well as their tactical kicking game. They didn't embrace all-out attack.
Cruden is no Dan Carter, and will never be as complete a player as the iconic All Blacks flyhalf. But there is no denying that Cruden's a fine player, and a player for the big occasion.
He showed his mettle when he came in for the knockout phases of the 2011 World Cup. He was instrumental in the Chiefs' inaugural Super Rugby victory in 2012. There is no doubt that Cruden will be recognised as one of the tournament's most influential players when the Chiefs claim their second title this Saturday.
Of course, the Chiefs have not relied on one man for their success. It has been a collective effort from the start, with coach David Rennie instilling a philosophy that makes use of all 15 players, and indeed every player in the Chiefs squad.
The influence of All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith should also be lauded. Together, Rennie and Smith have built a team that can compete consistently for the title,
The Chiefs have replaced the Crusaders as the New Zealand team to beat. They're on the verge of securing their second successive title, one they will win with only a handful of international players.
It goes to show how important a strong culture and balanced approach is in the modern game, and how often it is not the 15 best individuals that prevail, but the strongest collective.
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