When the Chiefs opened the 2012 Super Rugby season with a 23-19 loss to the Highlanders at Waikato Stadium it looked like normal service had been resumed.
Despite a complete cleanout of the coaching staff and half the playing personnel changed the home team's much vaunted Rolls Royce backline looked again like it had been coupled with a Morris Minor forward pack and it was going to be another hard slog for a mid-table finish.
Instead the Chiefs coaches, under the shrewd leadership of Dave Rennie, and players alike took on board the lessons learnt from the Highlanders' physicality at the breakdown and immediately took their intensity levels up several notches for the rest of the five-month competition and showed they really did have a pack to take on the best.
The result - the Chiefs' first title in 17 years of the professional competition and only their second visit to a final where they beat a travel-weary Sharks outfit from South Africa 37-6 at Waikato Stadium at the beginning of August.
There was little doubt the Chiefs had the strongest coaching group in the comp with Rennie, Wayne Smith, Tom Coventry and Andrew Strawbridge proving a standout combination.
They set out with a simple plan to recruit hard-working players, particularly in their forward pack, and produce a game style that saw much more emphasis on set-piece strength and taking the ball forward close in before releasing the backs to go wide.
But the jewel in the recruitment crown was Sonny Bill Williams who proved a standout contributor to the game plan at second five-eighth in getting the Chiefs over the advantage line and offloading after drawing defenders, while his combination with first-five Aaron Cruden was pivotal behind a solid pack that was a mixture of youth and experience.
The loss through injury of centre Richard Kahui to another shoulder injury midway through the season would have derailed past Chiefs campaigns but not this one.
Having clinched the New Zealand Conference and a home semifinal, the Chiefs' faltered a little towards the end of the round-robin, losing their last two games to fellow Kiwi sides the Crusaders and Hurricanes and finishing second overall behind the Cape Town-based South African conference winners, the Stormers.
But when the sixth qualifying wild card Sharks knocked off defending champions and Australian conference winners, the Reds, in the qualifying finals and then travelled back to South Africa to upset the Stormers the Chiefs were handed a home final and a travel-free playoffs schedule.
Perenial playoff qualifiers the Crusaders were New Zealand's next best team in finishing fourth overall and hosting the Bulls in a home qualifying final in Christchurch that they won impressively 28-13.
But they were unable to repeat their round-robin away victory over the Chiefs in the semifinals with the home side finding their earlier form to win 20-17 and earn the historic home final.
A good year for: Sonny Bill Williams and Liam Messam at the Chiefs, while Aaron Smith put his hand up for the All Blacks halfback berth with his high-speed, slick passing performances for the Highlanders who again tailed off after a strong start to the season.
A bad year for: The Blues under Pat Lam, who finished last in the New Zealand conference and 12th overall, prompting Lam's sacking as coach.
Crystal ball gazing: The Chiefs without Sonny Bill and the Crusaders without Richie McCaw will have a tough haul to repeat their top-four efforts but will again be influential players, while plenty of attention will be on how a new-look Blues outfit performs under the twin knights - Sir John Kirwan and Sir Graham Henry.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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