The Chiefs and the Sharks are favourites for the 2014 title because they possess strengths beyond the physical, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Chiefs were nicknamed the 'Moneyball Men' by the New Zealand press back in 2012. It's a name that's still relevant today, as they continue to produce results without an abundance of world-class players.
The question asked in 2012 is still asked today: What is it that makes the Chiefs so special? The answer is not only on the pitch, but off it.
The Chiefs coaches have made all the difference. Head coach Dave Rennie has built a strong team culture, and this has been complemented by the technical nous of assistant coach Wayne Smith, who has also enjoyed a lot of success with the All Blacks over the past decade.
What's been obvious over the past three seasons is that the Chiefs play as a unit. The players play for one another, and for the jersey. This attitude has been patent in the way they have defended and also in the manner in which they have attacked. It's never a case of the opposition worrying about one dangerous Chiefs player, but a group sharing a common goal.
It's no wonder that they're being tipped as New Zealand's best shot at the 2014 Vodacom Super Rugby title. They have the coaches, they have the structures, and most importantly, they have the culture to be a success.
The Sharks have gathered some momentum over the past four weeks, and have looked the best of the South African teams by some distance. The strength of their pack and the versatility of their backline has been evident, but then there's been something else that has set them apart.
In July 2013, John Smit initiated a necessary change when he came to power as the Sharks CEO. Smit had witnessed the benefits of a strong team culture when he was a player at English club Saracens, and subsequently opted to bring the mastermind of that blueprint, Brendan Venter, to Durban. A few months after installing a similar system, the Sharks were Currie Cup champions.
Venter has since made way for Jake White, another man who is big on team culture. White put the necessary structures in place in the build-up to the 2007 World Cup and many of the Springboks would credit the culture following that unforgettable win in Paris.
White was also the man behind the resurgence of the Brumbies, and so nearly guided the Canberra outfit to a title last year. Again, the players spoke of the changes to the culture as being largely responsible for the team's progress.
The Sharks are better off than the Chiefs in that they possess a host of world-class players. And if what the Sharks players are saying is true, they now have a culture to complement that talent and experience.
In a recent interview for SA Rugby magazine, Sharks No 8 Ryan Kankowski told me that the culture has certainly changed since White arrived at the franchise. Kankowski said that the team set-up is not only more professional now than it has been in the past, but that the atmosphere in the change room is certainly more positive.
White told his charges that they can win the Super Rugby title, and evidently the players have taken these words to heart. They will grow stronger as the season progresses, not only in terms of their physicality and accuracy, but with regards to their self-belief.
The Chiefs have already won two titles, and will be chasing a third this season. It's a pity that the two sides won't meet during the league stage (due to the draw), as it would be interesting to gauge how far the Sharks have progressed and whether they can stand toe to toe with defending champions at this stage.
There is a strong chance that the two sides will meet in the final, and the Sharks must ensure that a possible decider is played in Durban rather than Hamilton. The 2012 final was played between these two teams at the Waikato Stadium and was a one-sided blowout. The Sharks must avoid travelling all the way to Hamilton for a decider in 2014.
Consistency is so important in Super Rugby, and as history suggests, it is often the side that tops the log and thus secures home advantage for the play-offs that wins the trophy.
A strong culture is what underpins that consistency (think of the legendary Crusaders and Bulls sides of the past 10 years) and could certainly be credited for the Chiefs' recent successes. The Chiefs finished second on the log in 2012, and first in 2013. On both occasions, they had played themselves into a strong position to win the title.
The Sharks have passed the initial test, but must continue on their current path if they're to reach similar heights.
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