Resilient Chiefs still fighting for the three-peat

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2014
Brodie Retallick
Getty Images
OPPORTUNITY: Chiefs’ Brodie Retallick looks to offload the ball against the Blues at Eden Park on Friday night. Retallick has been a standout performer for the defending champions in recent matches.

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The Chiefs must now scale new heights if they are to achieve a Super Rugby three-peat, writes LIAM NAPIER.

From here, the Chiefs must defy history to claim a third successive crown.

Since the conference system, and top six playoff format, was introduced in 2011, no team has gone all the way from outside the top two spots.

"No-one has done it from sixth or wherever we're going to end up," halfback Tawera Kerr Barlow, one of the Chiefs' best in their gutsy 11-8 win over the Blues at Eden Park, said. "A lot of people write us off quite often. There's enough strength and character in this group to prove everyone wrong."

Indeed, having the first week off and securing home advantage are extremely valuable assets the Chiefs enjoyed the last two years.

After their taxing season on the road due to the devastating Christchurch earthquakes, the Crusaders came close in the 2011 finale against the Reds in Brisbane, only to fall agonisingly short. The Sharks were perhaps the best example of a team that hit the wall after exhaustive travel, losing 37-6 to the Chiefs in Hamilton in 2012.

This is uncharted territory for Dave Rennie's resilient men.

Just as they have been the last two weeks, the odds are again stacked against them.

In the first playoff round the Brumbies in Canberra are their likely destination and, should they progress further, the road is where they will remain for a potential semi and final. The Chiefs have won two from eight away from home this year, highlighting a season that's struggled to flourish before the business end.

"It's a challenge but we're just happy to be a part of it," Rennie said. "We'll back ourselves to go anywhere and have a crack. There's a lot made of travel. Between Australia and New Zealand it's not a big deal. There's a helluva lot of belief in this group and we've got a lot of guys that have been there before."

After a lacklustre loss to the Highlanders two weeks ago, many said the Chiefs were done, they would not make the playoffs, let alone defend their title.

Few will now envisage that happening, either.

The Chiefs are accustomed to being written off, though. It doesn't faze them. If anything, it's when they are most dangerous, most in unison.

Sudden death arrived two weeks early and pure heart saw them scrap their way into the top six - the win over the Blues epitomising their character on defence after continued ill discipline issues forced them to play without possession for long periods.

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"A lot of the talk a couple of weeks ago was our hopes were gone so to pick up a couple of wins against Kiwi sides which are always tough, we're pretty happy," Rennie said. "We're three games away from winning a championship."

On the evidence of Friday's slugfest, the Chiefs still have much to improve. Discipline will be top of that list. Living without the pill is not foreign for this outfit but conceding 16 penalties and a yellow card would be terminal against most sides.

"You can't afford to give teams like the Brumbies, if that's where we end up going, chances to kick for goal because they will hurt you," Rennie said.

Concerns with the scrum and a failure to put away the Blues at the death are additional areas Rennie will focus this week. Fullback Tom Marshall should have scored after a Kerr-Barlow break. It's these opportunities the Chiefs must nail.

"It's about being more clinical with our finishing," Kerr-Barlow said. "The last couple of weeks we've been in positions to score and we've let the opposition off.

"We had to become closer as a group to get through these past two weeks. The attitude was there and we'll take a lot of momentum from these last two games."

- Sunday Star Times

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