Chasing the Chiefs
James Gemmell runs the rule over the emerging title contenders in the world of Super Rugby.
Last Updated: 26/04/12 12:24pm
Is it too soon to consider the Super Rugby contenders?
We've passed the halfway mark, but this is the longest season in the competition's history and we still have the impact of the June break to take into account. Who knows what that will do for form and momentum, not to mention potential injuries picked up by Test players?
For now, the fun is in crystal ball-gazing, and three teams stand out.
Ahead of this weekend's action, the first-placed Chiefs, the second-placed Stormers and the sixth-placed Crusaders look the best teams in Super Rugby.
That two of them have never won the competition suggests we could be in for a thrilling ride towards a new champion, but it is also for that reason that a team like the Crusaders, coming to life at just the right time, cannot be counted out.
The Crusaders are multiple winners for a reason and have the temperament and experience to negotiate the minefield of finals football. The same cannot yet be said of the Chiefs and Stormers, who've both come up short in past finals.
But as the table attests, the men from Waikato and the Cape have been the best throughout this year, and both look to have learned from previous failings.
Intriguingly, the conference system that sees each team play all but two others in the competition will keep them apart in the regular season. If the Chiefs and Stormers do meet this year, it can only be at knockout time, when that temperament will be tested in full.
But what if they were to meet today? Ignoring location and travel, I think this would go the way of the Chiefs.
From their years of mid-table obscurity - which includes 11th and 10th-placed finishes the last two seasons - what are they doing differently?
They've always boasted one of the most sparkling backlines in the competition, even when it would change between seasons.
For those familiar with New Zealand domestic rugby, the Chiefs' feeder provinces of Counties-Manukau, Waikato and Bay of Plenty have been a nursery for gifted players down the decades. As a result, the Chiefs' ability in the open spaces has never been in question.
Up front, however, they've fallen short. Previous packs seem to have focused more on joining the backs in the fun stuff, and shirked their less glamorous responsibilities. Occasionally it would work, to spectacular effect, but ultimately it proved their downfall. 'Inconsistent' was often the adjective of choice to describe the Mooloo Men.
Under the guidance of Dave Rennie and - take note English readers - Wayne Smith, the Chiefs have addressed their shortcomings and now represent one of the most balanced teams in Super Rugby.
When considering his forward pack stocks pre-season, apparently Rennie went to the stats books of the ITM Cup teams in the Chiefs' catchment area.
He looked at tackles made, he looked at rucks hit, lineouts won, minutes played. He built his pack on work rate, not reputation, and is reaping the benefits now.
The best examples come in the very depths of the engine room with unsung heroes Brodie Retallick and Craig Clarke. They epitomise what the Chiefs of 2012 represent, and the very fact that Rennie instilled Clarke as skipper from the start highlights the importance the coach places on his role within the team, and his standing amongst his teammates.
All Black caps or World Cup winners medals in their own right don't win you Super Rugby titles, and Rennie and Smith have been quick to refocus their team on the task at hand following New Zealand rugby's big bash.
Of course with a well-oiled, ball-delivering forward pack, those All Black stars in the backline can shine with the extra time, and the attacking wizardry of Wayne Smith in the coaches' box has helped to unlock their potential further.
When possible, they're winning with space and style, when needed, they're winning up front and ugly. The Chiefs look the real deal this season, and deserve their number one position on the table.
Of course fans of the Stormers can put forward a similarly compelling argument in favour of their team, followers of the Crusaders will just tell us all to look at the history books, and fans of every team down to about the Reds in eleventh will feel they're still alive - but they should all acknowledge that, for now, they're chasing the Chiefs.