Chiefs prepare to ring changes for Hurricanes
The Chiefs have seldom adhered to the old adage that you never change a winning team.
They know from the experience of the last two title-winning seasons that it takes the efforts of an entire squad to win the Super Rugby competition.
And with backline stars Aaron Cruden, Charlie Ngatai, Robbie Fruean and Asaeli Tikoirotuma all back from the disabled list this week, they are likely to stick with that approach.
The Chiefs signed off on a gruelling nine-game run in nine weeks with an emphatic 32-20 home victory over the Blues in New Plymouth 12 days ago before going into their second bye of the Super Rugby season.
It kept them atop the New Zealand Conference. The Crusaders and Hurricanes both losing last weekend meant the Chiefs stayed there, albeit by one point.
This Saturday they take on the Hurricanes in Wellington and while there must be a temptation not to fiddle with the backline that finally clicked against the Blues, there is little doubt Cruden will be rushed back into the pivot position and the knock-on effect from that alone is likely to reshuffle the lineup.
"There is a lot of competition for places all of a sudden and we haven't had to make too many difficult decisions from a backline point of view this year," Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie said.
"It's a good problem, though, and to be successful in this competition you've got to share the workload."
Rennie said some of the returnees may come straight back into the starting lineup while others may come back via the bench.
The only one doubtful of doing either is big centre Fruean, who looks likely to be directed back to club rugby for a second game in a row.
"It's good that he got through 80 minutes at the weekend but [Super Rugby] is a big step up in pace and the workrates required at this level are massive so he probably needs a bit more game time under his belt," he said.
With Cruden, who is spending the first part of the week in Christchurch with five Chiefs team-mates at the All Blacks training camp, back from the broken thumb that put him out for the Chiefs' last five matches, the player directly affected is Gareth Anscombe.
Having finally come to terms with his shift back to his former specialist first five-eighth spot after playing most of his rugby for the Chiefs at fullback, Anscombe said yesterday he was unsure where he stood, still training at No 10 in Cruden's absence and now revelling in the fact he has finally got his game in the pivot where he wants it.
"I think it was always going to take a week or two to get used to playing at 10 again and being the main boss, especially after not playing there for a long time, but I really enjoyed the last couple of weeks [before the bye].
"Obviously our form changed a little bit and it's been nice to be part of that, while the Hurricanes are a pretty classy team and it would be nice to play against them, but that's out of my control a little bit."
Either way Anscombe felt it would be a lot easier to switch back to the 15 jersey than it was going to 10.
"I guess after finally getting a few games there it's a little bit frustrating, I suppose, if you move back out, but I don't mind as long as I'm on the field and obviously Cruds is a classy player and a huge part of this team," he said.
In the middle of it all Anscombe, who said it was not a foregone conclusion he would leave the Chiefs at the end of the season, has also had to handle the publicity out of Wales that a Welsh World Cup jersey is his if he moves there to play.
"A lot of it has just come from the media and while I might think about a few things during the June break, for now I'm just enjoying playing for the Chiefs. We're in a pretty vital part of the season so it's pretty important just to focus on what's in front of me right now."
Midfield back Ngatai, who along with winger Tikoirotuma will push hard for a spot in either the starting backline or reserves, said his troublesome calf was feeling good after being a late scratching from the team that played the Blues, when it tightened up yet again at training.
"It's just real frustrating, the calf being tight and having problems with it, but hopefully I can get on the field this week and put that behind me," Ngatai said.
"That competition [for places] is good for the team and I think we've missed it in the last few weeks, but now it's pretty good with all the boys coming back from injuries and giving the coaches a bit of a headache as to who to pick."