Chiefs deserved respect and they've got it
When are these Chiefs going to get some respect? Surely now, after Dave Rennie's patched-up defending champions delivered an emphatic statement of intent on opening night of the New Zealand Super Rugby season.
The Chiefs, with a baby at hooker, a woozy Tim Nanai-Williams at centre and Gareth Anscombe playing fullback for just the second time in his young life, came out and owned the final quarter en route to a fabulous 41-27 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin.
Remarkably few of the so-called experts had been pumping up the defending champs in their title assessments.
All the talk had been about how much better the Highlanders would be, about how the Crusaders were about to rebrand in search of an eighth championship, and even that the Hurricanes were poised to go to the next level.
But sometimes we miss the obvious because it's staring us in the face.
The Chiefs haven't changed a lot from the group that carved up last year. Sure they've lost Sonny Bill Williams and Sona Taumalolo, but those tremendous coaches are still there and so are most of the players who played their hearts out in 2012. They deserved more recognition, more respect. After Friday night they surely now have it.
This was a very impressive display from the Chiefs considering the following: 20-year-old Rhys Marshall started at hooker even though he's yet to play provincial rugby; Tim Nanai-Williams had been so violently ill on game day he didn't think he could play in the unfamiliar position of centre; Anscombe was making a rare outing at fullback, where he contributed 21 points with a near perfect kicking display.
It was very much a makeshift backline, including Bundee Aki debuting at second five, and one orchestrated by Aaron Cruden still constrained by a tight groin.
Never mind all that. The Chiefs were brilliant on the counter, punishing the Highlanders repeatedly for their lapses. Nanai-Williams scored two special tries, the second of which was a dagger blow to the Highlanders, as noted repeatedly afterwards by home coach Jamie Joseph.
There had been just a point in it, with the Chiefs leading 28-27 as the game ticked into the final quarter. It all looked promising for the Highlanders as they moved the ball right, with a fourth try looking more than a possibility.
But flanker John Hardie, outplayed by the special Sam Cane, spilt ball he should have snaffled, and Nanai-Williams shook off his nausea enough to swoop, gather and dash 70 metres upfield for the score.
"That broke our back," lamented Joseph.
The reality was the Highlanders were not bad. It's just that the Chiefs were very, very good in a high quality season opener that green lighted the stacked Kiwi conference in perfect fashion.
"We've got pretty good depth, and really good spirit," said a rapt Rennie afterwards.
"I thought the culture of the team really stood out. We've got a few beaten up guys but to come here and get five points and deny the Highlanders anything, it's a real bonus.
"It was a massive step up in intensity, especially at the breakdown, so the quality of ball we got was superb. With that quick ball we were able to put them under a lot of pressure.
"I guess we've set a bit of benchmark now and we've got to work hard against the Cheetahs next week."
Rennie was pleased with a lot of things from his side, but nothing more than the energy provided off the bench.
"We're very fortunate, even though we've got a few injuries, we've got really good depth."
Three individual efforts in particular were worthy of note.
Nanai-Williams had woken at 5am and rushed straight to the toilet where he spent most of the morning. At one stage he tried to cry off. Wayne Smith told him to suck it up and give what he had.
He did that superbly. Anscombe's heady play at fullback and his eight-for-nine kicking weren't bad either for a guy the Blues didn't want.
And in Cane they clearly have a young man going places quickly.
Sunday Star Times