Sonny Bill Williams the tonic for deflated Chiefs

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 15:36 20/07/2014
Sonny Bill Williams
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The Chiefs were heartened to receive a good luck message via video from Sonny Bill Williams before Saturday night's unsuccessful Super Rugby qualifying final in Canberra, but they realise that was no substitute for having the cross-code superstar appearing in person next season.

Williams' return to rugby at the end of his second NRL campaign with the Sydney Roosters presented a logical up side for the back-to-back champions in the aftermath of a frustrating 32-30 loss to the Brumbies.

It did not take long for Williams' imminent return to New Zealand rugby to be raised at GIO Stadium and head coach Dave Rennie admitted it would be hugely beneficial to have the league second rower revert to second five-eighth in 2015.

"Sonny sent a message to the boys wishing them all the best and obviously we're looking forward to getting him back.

"We're a pretty small backline without him and Richard Kahui (who left for Japan at the end of last season).

"We brought Robbie Fruean in to perhaps do that job for us but it hasn't eventuated," he said, referring to the disruptive effect of the midfield back's well documented heart issues.

The Chiefs generally relied on subtle rather than physically-imposing backs during a campaign that culminated with a record of eight wins, seven losses and two draws.

Aaron Cruden, Tim Nanai-Williams, Dwayne Sweeney, Bundee Aki and Gareth Anscombe are listed in the 82kg (Cruden) to 95kg (Sweeney) range so Williams' dimensions (108kg, 1.94-metres) will be a welcome boost as the Chiefs rebuild.

"To have Sonny back next year will give us a little bit of size. We'll look forward to that, it allows you to play a different style of game," said Rennie, who ramps up planning for the future after a host of personnel are farewelled.

Veteran flanker Tanerau Latimer heads the list of departing stalwarts while Anscombe, Aki, Mils Muliaina, Asaeli Tikoriotuma, Mo Schwalger and Kane Thompson are also contemplating the next phase of their careers.

Rennie said the focus once the squad disbands would be on the contribution of those individuals rather than collective disappointment of missing out of a record-equalling third straight crown.

"We'll reflect more on that," said Rennie, who could not disguise the fact that the Brumbies' 22-3 lead following a dominant opening quarter ensured the Chiefs have only won two of their last 10 games in Australia.

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Still, Rennie was impressed with a group that fought back to raise the prospect of extra time until Cruden missed a sideline conversion with less than four minutes remaining.

"I'm still really proud of the group. Obviously we lost a fair bit of experience last year and we've got some good young guys coming through," he said, nominating rookie No.8 Liam Squire and wing James Lowe as stars of the future.

"They'll benefit from playing in a knock out match like that and hopefully be better for it next year."

Rennie had no qualms about the Chiefs falling short in their quest to match the Crusaders' deeds of 1998-2000.

"We've had a pretty good run, we've probably won a couple of championships against the odds.

"Maybe on paper we haven't had the best side in the comp but we'd had a group of guys who have scrapped and fought for each other. You saw that again (on Saturday night)."

Back-up openside flanker Tevita Koloamatangi was another exciting prospect although Rennie acknowledged it would be challenging to replace Latimer, a Chiefs centurion.

"It's not just his contribution on the field. He's huge within the leaders, he's highly respected by the boys. He's the type of guy who understands when to wag the finger and when to put an arm around guys," he said.

Latimer, who joins Japanese club Toshiba in a fortnight, was predictably glum before he headed into a Chiefs dressing room for the last time.

"I'm leaving a band of brothers. These boys have been my family for the best part of eight years."

- Stuff

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