Super Rugby preview: Chiefs
With the new Super Rugby season looming large on the horizon, we take a look at each of the 15 competitors. Last but by no means least, the Chiefs!
The holders are gunning for three straight titles and are the bookmakers favourites for 2014.
Last year: Champions, and back-to-back ones at that. Losing one of their stars of 2012, Sonny Bill Williams, to Panasonic Wild Knights led to many doubting whether they could do what only the Blues, Crusaders and Bulls had managed since Super Rugby's inception. But in Bundee Aki they had a strong replacement while the leadership group of Craig Clarke, Liam Messam and Aaron Cruden guided them to glory on their home patch.
They lost just four games en route to silverware, opening their account with an outstanding attacking performance at the Highlanders, with the running of Tim Nanai-Williams standing out. His injury midway through 2013 was fortunately not a major stumbling block for the Chiefs.
Dave Rennie's men's losses came at the Stormers, at home to the Reds, at the Waratahs and also the Crusaders before they went on to face the latter again in the semi, winning 20-19, and then beating the Brumbies 27-22 after going in at half-time 9-16 adrift of the in-form Australians.
Silverware ultimately remained in Hamilton as Clarke and Messam lifted the trophy to cap a season that saw Aki, Nanai-Williams and Ben Tameifuna top their try chart with six while Gareth Anscombe was their top points man, claiming 166 despite missing part of the term.
This year: Their depth, particularly in the backline, is frighteningly strong. In fact they could name two completely different sevens behind the scrum and still defeat most they came up against. Example: 9 Kerr-Barlow, 10 Cruden, 11 Tikoirotuma, 12 Aki, 13 Nanai-Williams, 14 Marshall, 15 Muliaina or 9 Pulu, 10 Anscombe, 11 Lowe, 12 Ngatai, 13 Fruean, 14 Horrell, 15 Robinson (ITM Cup star Ihaia West is a back-up which stresses how strong they are).
Of course losing the experience of co-captain Clarke at lock is a blow but they add know-how in the form of Jamie Mackintosh and Mils Muliaina while Mahonri Schwalger, Messam, Cruden, Tanerau Latimer and many others have the top two inches to go all the way once again. Rennie has also added Tom Marshall, Robbie Fruean, Liam Squire and Nick Crosswell to a squad that is bulging with class and rightly enters 2014 as favourites.
This is a stronger group than in 2013 and should fend off challenges for the conference from the Crusaders and Blues. Cruden and Tawera Kerr-Barlow continue to develop as a partnership and with their unrivalled depth and a strong coaching group, a third title is on.
Key players: Seeing as he was red hot at the beginning of last season, Tim Nanai-Williams is our first man to monitor. Remember him skinning All Blacks wing Ben Smith in Dunedin with ease? Nanai-Williams had his season cut short in 2013 but is back this time around and offers so much to Rennie in terms of versatility. Tom Marshall was outstanding for the Crusaders and Canterbury last year and is a big coup while Liam Squire has real potential.
Noteworthy signings: Jamie Mackintosh (Highlanders), Matt Symons (Canterbury), Liam Squire (Tasman), Kane Thompson (Canon Eagles), Robbie Fruean (Crusaders), James Lowe (Tasman), Tom Marshall (Crusaders), Mils Muliaina (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes)
Noteworthy losses: Solomona Sakalia (released), Toby Smith (Rebels), Mike Kainga (Crusaders wider training group), Craig Clarke (Connacht), Romana Graham (Exeter), Fritz Lee (Clermont), Matt Vant Leven (released), Brendon Leonard (Zebre), Daniel Waenga (Biarritz), Richard Kahui (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Save Tokula (Aurillac), Lelia Masaga (Honda Heat), Patrick Osborne (Highlanders)
Prospects: They avoid away games at the Sharks and Stormers, who are the bookies favourites for the South African conference, while the possibility of opening up their campaign at a Kieran Read, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter-less Crusaders intrigues.
As mentioned, the Blues could be the conference outsiders but the safe bet would be backing the Chiefs to again go to their 'how to win' manual and finish on top. Once they hit their straps, expect scintillating rugby that is the ideal blend of grunt and class. Champions.
Feb 21: v Crusaders, away
Mar 1: v Highlanders, home
Week 4: Bye
Mar 14: v Stormers, home
Mar 22: v Force, away
Mar 29: v Bulls, away
Apr 5: v Cheetahs, away
Apr 12: v Rebels, home
Apr 19: v Crusaders, home
Apr 25: v Brumbies, away
May 3: v Lions, home
May 9: v Blues, home
Week 14: Bye
May 24: v Hurricanes, away
May 31: v Waratahs, home
Jun 27: v Highlanders, away
Jul 4: v Hurricanes, home
Jul 11: v Blues, away