Gifford: Maturity adds to the champions' might

PHIL GIFFORD
Last updated 05:00 16/03/2014

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Opinion

Rugby must front up to a refereeing challenge Stags on a winning track after season opener Johnstone: Time for All Blacks to break shackles Reason: All Blacks in need of some new tricks? Johnstone: Rugby replacements revamp needed Mehrtens: Records at risk as Wallabies eye coup Randell: Time to punt value of kicks into touch Burke: Eden Park no garden for Wallabies All Blacks have Bledisloe history on their side Reason: Is All Blacks aura of invincibility gone?

OPINION: Super Rugby teams should be very, very afraid.

The Chiefs of 2014 are better than the Chiefs who won titles in 2012 and 2013.

Some of the improvement comes from the maturing of key players.

Think Aaron Cruden taking the ball so flat on attack he can see the whites of the eyes of nervous defenders trying to decide whether to risk running off him and exposing gaps inside, or staying with him, and leaving more room on the outside.

Think Liam Messam, whose youthful love of the wide open spaces is now submerged in the adult business of keeping it tight and tough.

But the biggest thing the Chiefs have going for them is a belief that reminds me of the 1995 All Blacks at the World Cup in South Africa.

At the start of that year the squad assembled in Queenstown and Josh Kronfeld, who at that stage hadn't even played a test, dared to question the team tactic of using a runner one off the ruck to reach the advantage line.

"It's the safest option," he said, "but it's not the only one."

The sublime, wide-ranging rugby the All Blacks produced at the Cup sprang from there.

Against the Stormers on Friday night the perceived wisdom was that Cruden would kick behind the defensive line the Stormers used to almost choke the Crusaders to death last week.

As Josh Kronfeld might say, it would have been the safest option, but it wasn't the only one.

Instead the Chiefs worked on unloading in the tackle, or, at the very least, not passing until a defender was so committed to a tackle he didn't have time to peel off to thicken the cover outside him.

And here's where it got truly scary for other title contenders.

When the mix of talent, confidence and enthusiasm is right a tipping point can be reached, and a team enters a zone in which remarkable, weird, successful things start to happen.

Call it luck if you like, but another description could be destiny. An example? In 1998 at Eden Park in the final against the Blues, a kick by Andrew Mehrtens bobbled so crazily two Blues defenders grasped at air until James Kerr grabbed the ball and scored the winning try for the Crusaders. By all means call it a fluke, but the Crusaders' name is on the trophy.

When your mojo's working, near miracles occur. Against the Stormers Tom Marshall over-ran the ball, but without really breaking stride, he back-heeled the ball ahead of himself, recovered it and passed it to James Lowe, who scored.

Despite an injury list that would devastate a less exuberant group, the Chiefs have developed to the point bench players can step up and play with the daring and accuracy of first liners.

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If there's a weakness it may be at scrum time, but winning the scrum contest alone won't beat this outfit. The scrap over the loose ball is the vital area, and so far there's no sign of another team that matches their junkyard dog fervour there.

On the same night the Chiefs were shining, the Crusaders sweated to a win over the Rebels.

The Crusaders have a terrific tight five, the best in the New Zealand competition, but over the rest of the paddock there's still a feeling of over anxiousness.

To be alive at the sharp end in July they'll need Carter, McCaw and Read on board and healthy, not only for their obvious talents, but also for their calming influence.

- Sunday Star Times

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