Take the $7 odds on the Chiefs to win title

PHIL GIFFORD
Last updated 05:00 17/02/2013

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They're far too self-effacing a group to say so, but you could hardly blame the Chiefs for feeling a lack of respect since they won their first Super Rugby title last year.

OPINION: Money, as a much wiser person than me once said, is the sincerest form of flattery.

So are the Chiefs favourites to win the title again this year? No. The TAB has the Crusaders at $4 for the win, the Chiefs at $7.

Team of the year at the New Zealand rugby awards? No, but there at least they could console themselves with being runner-up to a pretty handy team in the All Blacks.

Coach of the year at the New Zealand rugby awards? No. Steve Hansen had a brilliant year with the All Blacks, but when you consider Dave Rennie took the Chiefs from 10th place in 2011 to first in 2012, who could have complained if he had sneaked in?

Super Rugby player of the year? No. And here's where it got silly, bordering on insulting. Conrad Smith was terrific for the Hurricanes, but his team didn't make the playoffs. How the hell could Chiefs first-five Aaron Cruden have been overlooked?

For a start, he's one of a group so special they could have a get together in a phone box with room to spare, the "No 10s Who Have Outplayed Dan Carter In A Game Club".

Cruden played his best rugby for the Chiefs when it really mattered, at the sharp end of the season. He was masterful in the semifinal win over the Crusaders (see the "No 10s Club"), and in pelting rain during the final with the Sharks, it was his clinical punt that put the Chiefs into a position to score the crucial try that cracked the game open.

Calm under pressure, a points machine and, despite the fact he would fit easily under the arm of most Super players, a fearless tackler. Cruden, and by extension his team, deserved better at the awards.

Still, the Chiefs could console themselves with the fact that it took a while for the Crusaders to get the respect they deserved.

The 1998 win in the Eden Park final with the Blues was dismissed by many as a fluke, and in 1999 the Crusaders started the season as $9 outsiders at the TAB.

By the time a third title was won in 2000, the rest of the country realised the team out of Christchurch really was something special.

Like the Crusaders, it's the character of the people in the Chiefs who'll make them so dangerous again this year.

There have been good men involved in the past in Hamilton, but winning too often felt like an impossible dream.

Ross Cooper, a coach for whom the phrase "salt of the earth" could have been invented, actually asked me "What made you write that we'd be title contenders?" in 1999 after his Chiefs had been thrashed 48-3 by the Crusaders in their opening game.

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Mid-table had almost become a default setting, to the point where John Mitchell taking the team to sixth in 2000 won him the All Blacks job.

Now the Chiefs think like winners, with a spirit epitomised by captain Craig Clarke, the sort of angular, sharp-edged, tireless worker who would have fitted seamlessly into any of the great Waikato sides from the amateur era.

Taking their cue from the captain, the Chiefs actually out-Crusadered the Crusaders in last year's semi, and the confidence from the title victory will make them even more dangerous.

If I, God forbid, was making the odds, I wouldn't have one cent of difference between the Crusaders and the Chiefs.

The exciting reality is that if any team can gatecrash the final ahead of them, they are likely to be from New Zealand.

- Sunday Star Times

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