Chiefs face Super hard yards in second final
Out-muscled. Out-passioned. Out-thought.
The Chiefs bashed the gob-smacked Crusaders into submission. It sounds simple enough, but their execution was exceptional, because the meticulous planning was precise.
Pure physical aggression - and another mature Aaron Cruden display - propelled Davie Rennie's overachieving men to their second Super Rugby final this week.
Spurred by a desperate mindset and the benefit of a week's rest to plot their revenge, the Chiefs transformed into possessed individuals who came together to achieve a collective goal.
Most expected the seven-time champion rock-star Crusaders to prevail. Their experience would give them the edge, it seemed.
Coming off two losses, few predicted the Chiefs could produce a passionate, committed performance of this degree that would roll their favoured counterparts in Hamilton on Friday night.
Yet few thought the Chiefs would be New Zealand's best hope of claiming the title, given their mass player exodus and new coaching staff Rennie brought this season.
“A lot of people probably didn't think we'd be in the position we are now but we had a self-belief in this group and it's only got stronger as the season has gone on,” Cruden said.
The Chiefs' intentional niggle - and domination - started from the opening whistle and didn't let up. They were worthy victors.
So often composed and collected, the Crusaders' nonexistent attack wasn't allowed to fire a shot. They didn't cope with the intensity, the in-your-face pressure. Todd Blackadder's men were flustered. They panicked.
Down by three points in the closing stages, the red-and-black machine was repeatedly shunted back by thundering hits until another uncharacteristic mistake finally ended their inconsistent campaign.
That attitude epitomised the Chiefs' mantra. “That's the only way you can beat the Crusaders. They are a world-class side and you've got to get stuck into them,” exhausted Chiefs co-captain Liam Messam said.
Messam led the ambush, but fellow leader Craig Clarke was another key figure in enforcing the defensive onslaught.
“We knew we had to be more conformational,” Clarke said. “Not taking a backward step as a forward pack, you've seen from us during the season that we were good when we do those things.
“It certainly flustered them a little bit. They didn't have it all their own way like they have done.”
The only question now, regardless of whether the Chiefs host the flamboyant Sharks in Hamilton or travel to meet the dour Stormers in Cape Town, is can they back it up in the big show?
Lifting again may prove challenging. Physical fatigue could be crucial. Most of the preparation to this point is done. It will come down to controlling emotions and harnessing mental strength.
“There were a lot of doubters coming up against the Crusaders. They were probably fancied in a lot of people's minds,” Cruden said. “But we knew we had the capabilities to go out there and produce. That's just going to roll on for next week.”
The embarrassing 61-17 hiding the Chiefs copped in their only other finale appearance in Pretoria against the Bulls three years ago is entrenched in Messam's memory. On that occasion, the Chiefs choked.
“I've been there before,” Messam said. “They are not fond memories of the final. It's about making sure we've learnt from those lessons.
"We've got a few guys who were in that team," he said.
“If you look in our changing room there are a lot of smiles but we know the job is not done. There's still an edge and steel about this team.”
It's been four long years since New Zealand last won a Super title.
There is every chance the Chiefs could break that drought.
Sunday Star Times