Chiefs face uphill battle after heavy Tahs loss
The Chiefs are putting on a brave face and dismissing talk of their playoff chances having gone after their fourth loss in their last six matches.
But the reality is the back-to-back Super Rugby champions have never quite reached the sort of form that enabled them to win the New Zealand Conference in both previous seasons under Dave Rennie and his astute coaching group.
With the New Zealand Conference so close, and so many Kiwi sides firing at the business end, a conference win is starting to get out of reach for the Chiefs who are now six points behind the Crusaders, while a top-six berth overall in order to make the playoffs is also going to be tough to achieve but far from impossible.
"We've got three local derbies left so we will probably need to win them all - in fact we will need to win them all - but there is still a chance to qualify and of course winning a couple of those will hopefully put a couple of other teams under pressure as well," Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie said.
Debilitating injury disruptions and the loss of under-rated captain and lock Craig Clarke overseas have meant an inconsistent season that has mostly hung together until now on good defence and patches of attacking brilliance.
A stuttering lineout, poor ball retention and discipline as well as lack of finishing due to a mixture of poor skill execution, poor vision and communication have been problems to varying degrees all season.
The ball retention, discipline and finish have been the factors most prevalent in the most recent back-to-back defeats, including the 33-17 loss to the Waratahs in New Plymouth on Saturday.
There are plenty more twists and turns to go in the season yet, as always at this time of year and as illustrated by competition leaders the Sharks losing at home to the Stormers in Durban yesterday and the Hurricanes going down to the Blues on Saturday night in Auckland.
But for two weeks now the Chiefs have not been able to recreate the performance that enabled them to convincingly beat the Blues in their previous trip to Taranaki just before the bye and even that victory hid some ever-present flaws in their game.
It has had the Chiefs' coaches scratching their heads. No coaching group is more analytical and more exhaustive in their preparation, but it seems the more they try to plug some holes leaks spring in other areas.
For two weeks now the Chiefs have come out strangely flat, lacking the intensity of their opposition and handing early momentum to their opponents, leaving the defence to work overtime to keep them in the game.
A reflection of the performance against the Waratahs was the body language of returning skipper and first-five Aaron Cruden and his comment that he had struggled throughout the match to get into his groove and rated it his worst performance in a Chiefs jersey.
"In such a defining match you want to put your best foot forward and I probably didn't do that tonight," Cruden said on Saturday.
The Chiefs have the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Blues left after the June international break, two of those away from home, so the task is a difficult one.
But the next game against the Highlanders in Dunedin is not until June 27 so the Chiefs have time to regroup, refresh and come up with a plan for one final tilt at getting in the playoffs.
"One advantage is that we've got a bit of time now," said Rennie.
"Guys will go away, they'll train in a different environment and hopefully that will mentally freshen our boys up, which will be important.
"As coaches we've got to look at how we're preparing the boys and maybe little tweaks to our game.
"We're being worked out from an attack point of view and they [the Waratahs] were able to shut us down tonight [Saturday] so some subtle tweaks could make all the difference.
"But we need to have a good look at what we're doing and come up with a plan to put a bit more pressure on the Highlanders."
The players will have a week and a half away from their Ruakura base and then come together in time to play 40 minutes against each of Waikato and Counties Manukau at Matamata on June 17 as they build up for one last push.
There are fresh injury concerns with lock Matt Symons being knocked out in Saturday's game and flanker Sam Cane hyper-extending his knee, while several players have to now get through an All Blacks series against England.