Chiefs look to build on opening-game success

EVAN PEGDEN
Last updated 05:00 25/02/2013

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PERFECT BEGINNING: Liam Messam and Chiefs have started their defence of the Super Rugby season with a win over the Highlanders but Taine Randell doesn't think they will win the competition.

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The Chiefs will be sticking with their successful but makeshift backline for the next three matches at least as they look to build on their opening-game success in Super Rugby.

But they have hopes of getting at least one, if not both, their experienced hookers back sooner after a sensational debut by 20-year-old rookie Rhys Marshall in the 41-27 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday night.

The Chiefs pack their bags and head to South Africa on Sunday afternoon for a two-match tour after this Saturday's first home game against the Cheetahs at Waikato Stadium.

It appears that won't be enough time for the injured backline quartet who missed the opener - Richard Kahui, Robbie Robinson, Andrew Horrell and Brendon Leonard - to get themselves right in time to travel.

"It's likely they will all be out and won't be back prior to us getting back from South Africa," Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie said yesterday.

The top two hookers in the squad, Mahonri Schwalger and Hika Elliot, missed Friday's match with Schwalger needing more time to return from off-season knee surgery and Elliot straining a calf muscle at last Wednesday's main pre-match training run.

Schwalger should be in contention to play this week and travel to South Africa, after he was a late switch out of the team on Friday morning, having been named to replace Elliot in the starting lineup.

Elliot's injury is not as bad as first thought, now described as a one to three-week injury, giving him an outside chance of touring, depending on his progress this week.

Rennie admitted that the decision to start Marshall, who has yet to play senior provincial rugby, (although signed by Taranaki after playing under-20 rugby for Hawke's Bay while on a two-year farming course) was more a case of taking the pressure off Marshall by not naming him in the XV earlier as well as one of giving Schwalger more time to prove his fitness.

But there was no surprise among the Chiefs coaches about how well Marshall played in an 80-minute performance, having picked him from relative obscurity, again out of the New Zealand under-20 side.

"It was a special performance from a young fella who only found out that morning he was going to start.

"He did a good job in the set-piece stuff and around the field he's got a massive ticker and was involved in a lot of tackles, a lot of cleanout and a lot of carrying. He had a mighty game and we're really happy for him.

"Maybe it highlights the naysayers who didn't understand why we would pick a young fella who hadn't played NPC."

Once again it showed Rennie and the Chiefs are bang on in placing huge emphasis on character in recruiting players and this just follows on from the young tyro successes of last year like Brodie Retallick and Ben Tameifuna.

Of the other standout players for the Chiefs on Friday such as man-of-the-match flanker Sam Cane, fill-in centre Tim Nanai-Williams and impressive fullback and goal-kicker Gareth Anscombe, it was Nanai-Williams who was the most remarkable story.

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Nanai-Williams, 23, was facing a huge challenge in switching from wing/fullback to centre in place of the injured Kahui and Horrell as it was, but after waking up in the middle of the night before the game suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea and spending the following day in bed it is a miracle he was able to front at all let alone score two tries and play a starring role.

"We thought we might get 30 or 40 [out of him] but at halftime he said he was still hanging in there and felt OK.

"We were going to take him off just prior to him getting beaten by Kade Poki but he didn't want to come off but by the time they scored again he was pretty wasted and came straight off, went in the shower, pulled up a chair and sat under the water for about 20 minutes," Rennie said.

Not rated, not bothered

The Chiefs are unconcerned about not getting much respect or recognition in some quarters, despite winning the Super Rugby title last year.

Even the TAB didn't rate the Chiefs prior to the kickoff of the season, and some critics were still not convinced they could win back-to-back championships even after last Friday night's impressive season-opening win in Dunedin. Last week assistant coach Wayne Smith spoke about adjusting to life as champions and thriving on being "overdogs" as opposed to underdogs but so far that is not the way it has panned out.

"We're not too concerned about what other people think," said Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie. "We were pretty confident we could win the [Highlanders] game even with the guys we had missing.

"Maybe a lot of people thought the Highlanders had picked up a lot of key players and so, as it turned out, we went in as the underdogs but we don't tend to talk about it.

"Our focus is on us putting a plan into practice on the field against the enemy, and it doesn't concern us whether people think we're favourites or not," he said.

It is human nature, however, that the Chiefs should expect some credit for their performances and therefore respect from critics, although no Kiwi team will ever be too troubled about being labelled underdogs.

Rennie points out that just within the New Zealand Conference it is difficult to nominate favourites when any one of the five teams is capable of beating any other, the competition is that close between them.

"Whether people think you are favourite or not it doesn't count for much," he said.

- Waikato Times

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