Chiefs vow to be even better than last year
The Chiefs aren't resting on their laurels as they set about their defence of the Super Rugby title.
They know how hard it is to win - their inaugural title last year took 17 long years to achieve.
But they are adamant they will have to be even better this season if the impressive trophy is to stay locked up at Chiefs HQ in Hamilton.
"We have parked it aside," veteran halfback Brendon Leonard told Sunday News about having the title next to their name.
"We all line up again on the start line; we can't rest on what we did last year. I guess we have to be better than last year. There aren't many teams that have won this title back to back recently, so it shows that you have to keep improving and keep trying to get better.
"We have talked about that the last two weeks . . . the fact that we have to sort of start again. I don't think that's too hard to do. There are new guys that have come into the team that have never won a competition. They want to get that feeling."
It's a feeling that Leonard still cherishes. The 27-year-old epitomises everything good about his franchise.
He has mixed outrageous talent with gritty determination to stay in their mix since his stunning debut season in 2007 that saw him instantly elevated to All Blacks status. As injuries bit into his game time for the Chiefs and eventually curtailed his test career, he simply put his head down and stuck at it.
Winning a Super Rugby title was pretty much as good as it gets for a player who has gone from being an automatic starter to a battler in this squad, fighting for the No 9 jersey against the likes of Tawera Kerr- Barlow, who has jumped ahead of him on the national pecking order.
"To win the championship last year with a team I've been with so long was a very cool feeling . . . very unique. It was definitely something I wanted to do," Leonard said.
Lesser people might have retired with the sort of injury frustrations he's suffered over the years. Greedier players would have headed offshore.
Leonard admits this is a pivotal season in his career as his current New Zealand contract runs out. No- one would begrudge him a chance at grabbing some overseas riches. But that's not on his mind right now. He's battling to overcome his latest injury - a broken right cheekbone that will stall his introduction till about round five - and is desperate to contribute.
"It's a very interesting year for me. It's make or break a little bit. I'm not too sure what will happen after this season . . . where I will be and things like that.
"I've just got to get over this problem and then stay injury-free and put my best foot forward.
"So, personally it's about trying to contribute on the field more, getting as much game time as I can. That's what I enjoy."
Leonard says the Chiefs success last year was more about precision than persistence and he expects that to only increase this season under the guidance of astute coaches Dave Rennie, Wayne Smith and Tom Coventry.
"They are a great bunch of guys," Leonard says of the men at the helm.
"They gel well, they have their own sort of areas and make sure they coach well. They do an incredible amount of analysis. Basically, they know the game so well and they set very high standards. We have to try and meet those. If you do, great; if you don't, you get into trouble."
There has been a surprisingly high turnover in the squad, considering their first-up success under Rennie who astutely chose players with high work ethics and extracted the most out of them.
Cult hero prop Sona Taumalolo, superstar midfielder Sonny Bill Williams and reliable backrower Kane Thompson have gone overseas. Another six players were deemed surplus and released for this fresh challenge.
The latest recruits are a mix of vast experience, such as veteran lock Ross Filipo, proven performers such as Gareth Anscombe and Charlie Ngatai, and raw talent like the Counties Manukau pair of Augustine Pulu and Bundee Aki.
The latter two players are reflective of the increased work the Chiefs are putting into developing players within their franchise boundaries. They see this as imperative to ongoing success.
Leonard has picked up on the raw energy the new players have injected and says that augurs well.
While not wanting to harp back to last year, Leonard says there are lessons from there that can help the title defence. Traditional slow starters, the Chiefs leapt out of the blocks and didn't falter, increasingly enjoying the position as pacesetter.
"We got momentum early and I think it started at pre-season. We did a lot of hard work, we set the foundations," he says.