Chiefs must win it the hard way this season

ANXIOUS WAIT: The Chiefs are sweating on the fitness of Charlie Ngatai.
ANXIOUS WAIT: The Chiefs are sweating on the fitness of Charlie Ngatai.

The Chiefs are used to qualifying first or second and having the first week of the Super Rugby playoffs off but now they are just desperate to reach the playoffs.

A win in their final regular season match on Friday night against the Blues in Auckland will achieve that aim and challenge them to become the first team to win the title from outside the top two.

The Reds won in the first year of the current 15-team competition, six-team playoff format in 2011 from top seeding and the Chiefs won their first ever Super Rugby titles in 2012 and 2013 after finishing second and first respectively in the round-robin, getting a bye in the first weekend of playoffs and not having to leave home for either semifinals or finals.

Clearly that will be different this year if they win on Friday. The most they can finish on is 45 points and already three teams - the three conference leaders - have more than that.

So the goal now is to squeeze into that top six and be involved in a qualifier match (in reality a quarterfinal), which would be away from home against either the third or fourth-placed sides unless they can finish fourth themselves.

"Obviously we're just desperate to be part of the mix still and if we can get through this weekend then we're part of the six and it's just knockout footy where you have to get it right for 80 minutes each week," Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie said yesterday.

"The key is we can't worry too much about that or even where we're going to finish, which is probably anywhere between fourth and sixth based on how many points we get and how many points our rivals get."

Rennie said the priority was winning on Friday night and if they scored four or more tries to get the extra point that would be a bonus.

The Waratahs' 44-16 win over the Highlanders in Sydney on Sunday had reiterated that good teams didn't have to be off their game by much to suffer a heavy defeat in such a close-fought competition.

"The Waratahs were pretty impressive but it showed if you're just a couple of cogs off you can get belted by someone as we did by the Hurricanes a few weeks back," Rennie said.

"She's tight and there's a lot of desperation. You look at the Force bouncing back to beat the Reds, which was a good effort from them and they're one win away from getting into playoff footy too for the first time so there's a lot on the line for a lot of teams this weekend."

The Chiefs found the right balance in their team to play the Hurricanes and after countless backline changes due to injuries and form this season don't expect much tinkering with the playing lineup this week.

But one player they are sweating on the fitness of is second five-eighth Charlie Ngatai, who has been plagued by injuries this season, mostly to his calf.

This time Ngatai has suffered a sublaxation of his shoulder, which is a partial dislocation, and Rennie said yesterday they were still awaiting scan results to find out the extent of the damage done in the Hurricanes match and whether he would be available this week.

Ngatai was injured just before almost putting fullback Tom Marshall in for a right-corner try early in the second half but was struggling to use one arm.

"It's disappointing because he's a hell of a good player and provides you with something a bit different," Rennie said.

"He's got a good skill set, a good kicking game and is very quick. I thought he went very well for the 50-odd minutes he played [against the Hurricanes]."

Compared to the Blues backline, Ngatai and Tim Nanai-Williams are a relatively small midfield combination but are both quick and good on their feet, with massive work rates.

"We'd love to get them both out there [against the Blues] and if we do then the backline will be unchanged, but we'll make any decision on whether we need to move any other people in or out based on what happens at 12," Rennie said.

The heroes of the win over the Hurricanes were the Chiefs forwards and they will need to be again against the Blues.

"The Hurricanes have got a very good pack and I thought our guys were outstanding," said Rennie.

"We come up against another good pack where all the tight-five have played for the All Blacks and a couple of their loosies, so they're pretty experienced and pretty brutal when they're at their best.

"We're well aware of that and we need another big one out of our fellas up front."

Waikato Times