OPINION: Make no bones about it: the Chiefs face their biggest challenge of the Dave Rennie-era in New Plymouth this evening and it comes from within.
In his always unerringly accurate post-match assessment, Rennie stated the Chiefs "finished a distant third" to the Hurricanes in Wellington last Saturday night.
And while praise was deservedly heaped on the home side, it should not blind us to the fact that the Chiefs reacted poorly in the critical moments of that game.
When it mattered most, a large portion of that team did not front up with the attitude, passion, commitment, intelligence and trust which forms the basis of what they call "Chiefs Mana".
Those are also comments that could be used to describe the efforts in the three other significant losses the Chiefs have suffered in the last 2 seasons of Super Rugby - 42-27 v Reds in 2012, 43-15 v Crusaders last year and 41-23 v Brumbies this year.
It's not about the physical aspects of rugby at Yarrow Stadium tonight.
This game, against a very good, though slightly schizophrenic Waratahs side, is the ultimate test of this group's mental fortitude.
They were heavily penalised at the breakdown last week, so can they implement the changes needed to avoid the referee ruling against their every move in that vital area, whilst still being legally assertive enough to combat arguably the competition's best ball pilferer in Waratahs openside Michael Hooper?
Have they got their act together at lineout time, where the Waratahs will surely have a massive crack at them?
And can they locate the attacking accuracy, particularly in the opposition's 22, that they rediscovered against the Lions and Blues, only to misplace it during the bye week?
Now a few pundits and supporters I've spoken to this week expect all those things, especially the last one, to return with Aaron Cruden back in the starting lineup.
That's more than a bit insulting to Gareth Anscombe, who has been very good in difficult circumstances during the All Blacks first five's injury enforced absence.
However, it would also be ignorant of us to dismiss the assertion, such is the nature of Aaron Cruden's relationship with Dave Rennie.
He is a living, breathing extension of his coach on the field, as we've seen proven in spades with the New Zealand Under 20's, Manawatu and now the Chiefs.
Mind you, if his team-mates look to Cruden for all the answers tonight, they will cop it like a chook for the second successive week.
But that isn't going to happen. Because following the loss to the Hurricanes, something else happened.
A small pool of people, supposedly learned in the game, began writing off the Chiefs.
If you're a Chiefs fan, you should be applauding those folk.
The one thing I've learnt, above all the things this team and this coaching group have taught me, is that they come together tighter and are at their most dangerous when they have a chip on their shoulder.
And ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, let me tell you unequivocally that when the Chiefs run out at Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth at 4.35pm tonight, they will do so with some seriously big slabs of totara on those aforementioned shoulders. Nigel Yalden is a Waikato-based sports commentator for Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport
- Waikato Times
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