Mehrtens: Chiefs forced to hand over the keys

ANDREW MEHRTENS
Last updated 05:00 08/04/2014
Aaron Cruden
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BIG LOSS: The Chiefs should learn a lot about the strength of their squad while Aaron Cruden is on the sidelines recovering from injury.

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OPINION: Much as the All Blacks had to learn to live without Dan Carter, the Chiefs now have to find a way to thrive without Aaron Cruden.

It speaks volumes for how far Cruden has progressed that whoever comes into that position for the Chiefs is going to feel similar to Cruden when he first had to step in for Carter.

Cruden casts that sort of a shadow these days. He's been so central to their game all season, now that culture we often speak of with the Chiefs is going to have to allow other guys to help lead the team without encroaching on the authority of the new 10.

His broken thumb and couple of months on the sideline is clearly a big loss for the Chiefs - and maybe even for the All Blacks - because they've invested a lot of faith in him. They made him co-captain, and he has thrived on it.

I've been impressed by his presence this season. I know that sounds a bit airy-fairy, but one of the things you miss with a Cruden, or Carter, is that stability and familiarity that allows those around them to play well.

Cruden has helped the composure of this group, and he lifts confidence and standards because he's such a gifted attacker, has got such a big heart and is such a consistent goalkicker and decision-maker.

Having said all that, if any franchise can install a less experienced No 10 and surround him with good systems and expert tutelage it's these Chiefs.

Head coach Dave Rennie will provide the gameplan and structures he needs and in Wayne Smith, a former All Black first-five, he'll have the ultimate in technical support.

They'll both demand high standards but they're both good jokers and will instil confidence in the new guy.

Whoever plays there will be told to bring his own strengths. They'll tell him don't try to be an Aaron Cruden, the same way Cruden was so often told don't be a Dan Carter.

All indications are Gareth Anscombe will get the first crack. He's a top-class goalkicker, and I like his attitude. He's gone down from Auckland with a nothing-to-lose approach, and has played well with a positive mindset.

The Chiefs are well versed at handling injuries with their team culture. They leave nothing to chance, and will have planned for this possibility.

They'll tell Anscombe, or whoever it is, to enjoy himself, to be excited about the opportunity, and they'll give him the framework to go out and keep the team ticking over.

It's been a funny tour for the Chiefs who failed to win a match, yet still brought back seven points. Their twin comebacks in South Africa to salvage draws were quite remarkable.

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They didn't let poor starts rattle them too much, and had the belief and fortitude to haul in big deficits. I know Dave Rennie was pretty disappointed after the Cheetahs game, but I don't think they're far away.

Teams in South Africa bring a ferocity that causes errors, but to score 70-odd points in two outings shows they've got game, even when things aren't going as well as expected.

The Rebels in Hamilton this Saturday will be a tough one. In many ways the travel factor is as much of an issue as missing Cruden. Both will have to be dealt with.

No one's been talking the Crusaders up too much after their win in Johannesburg, but that's a big result. To be the first team to knock the Lions over at home could be a momentum-changer for a team that needed belief and confidence.

No win in South Africa can be sneezed at, especially at Ellis Park, and I've been part of Crusaders teams who have found our mojo on tour. One game can be all it takes to turn things round.

I liked what I saw from the Hurricanes too. A lot of what they're doing is based on going the same way, with bodies in motion, and guys volunteering for work. The advantage of this is you can get some good momentum.

The Canes will be even more dangerous when they start getting reward for all their early endeavour, but in a tight conference I wouldn't write these guys off.

There's some talk that Benji Marshall might be bailing out on rugby. Id like to see him persist. He tries things, he looks for space and he's been close to cracking it. He just needs a few more chances.

On the subject of the Blues I should apologise for jinxing them after talking them up last week. They were well short of the mark in Canberra and clearly failed to play to their strengths, getting caught up in the opposition's style.

Traditionally New Zealand teams beat Aussie sides when they bash them physically. Maybe we need to go back to that.

- Fairfax Media

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