Chiefs make big statement in opening round

MARC HINTON
Last updated 17:12 25/02/2013
Tanerau Latimer
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CHIEFS ON TOP: Tanerau Latimer of the Chiefs fends off new Highlander Tony Woodcock.

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OPINION: JK's Baby Blues may have been the feelgood story of the opening weekend proper of Super Rugby, but for me it was the Chiefs who made the biggest statement.

The defending champs, with their emphatic 41-27 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin, laid down a mightily impressive marker. They said to every other team in this competition: "The title runs through us again this year - come and get it if you're good enough."

Not that the Blues didn't scratch their own line in the sand with their 34-20 victory over the Hurricanes in the capital (so much for home advantage, huh?). Sir John Kirwan's new-look and largely inexperienced team showed exactly the outfit they're going to be in 2013, and that's one who will make you pay if you give them too many looks.

Let me just preface discussions by pointing out it's only week one (not counting that little Aussie preamble), and no firm conclusions can be drawn at this stage of a season that doesn't finish until August.

Last year the Chiefs and Sharks both lost in week one, and ended up finalists. To further emphasise the analogy, the Chiefs dropped their first game at home to the Highlanders - and we all know how it worked out in the end for those two sides.

It's early days, but at least we have some real rugby to talk about, and definitely some topics to discuss at the water cooler.

Let's start with the Chiefs. Theirs was a special performance first up, all things considered.

The champs were down to their third string hooker and were absent a gaggle of backline stalwarts, including Brendon Leonard, Richard Kahui, Andrew Horrell and Robbie Robinson.

They had to move a sickly Tim Nanai-Williams into centre and new recruit Gareth Anscombe to fullback. Both had barely played their respective positions hitherto. Hooker Rhys Marshall had not even played provincial rugby, let alone started a game at this level. Just to compound matters Aaron Cruden is working through groin issues, and is effectively running with the handbrake on.

Never mind. The Chiefs are brilliantly coached, and it seems like whomever they send out, they're going to get 15 guys coming together in pretty unified fashion.

They also clearly have some fabulous depth, and that is going to be vital as this competition plays out. Nanai-Williams can play centre, wing or fullback, they've got veteran loosie Tanerau Latimer backing up the special Sam Cane, they've got locks and props who are pretty interchangeable, three excellent halfbacks and a ton of options all over their backline.

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They had a pretty stirring sort of contest against the Highlanders for the first three quarters but when the game went on the line the Chiefs simply blasted the southerners off the park.

Their set piece is solid, their loose trio are athletic and busy and can tackle, and they have backs who understand the value of turned over possession, and are good enough to do something with it.

The Chiefs won't be getting carried away with anything at this stage, but even Rennie had to admit afterwards it was a pretty bloody good performance from his men. They are much, much better, he added, than they were at this stage last season.

The Blues' shock win at the Cake Tin was huge for them. The confidence they will have got from that - never mind the thousands it will have added to their gate for Friday night at Eden Park - is inestimable.

They really faced some adversity when Frank Halai was rather harshly pinged for a penalty try and yellow card in a pretty fair two-man tussle with Julian Savea for the ball.

Down a man, and the lead, heading into the final quarter, it could easily have gone pear-shaped for such a young team. Instead they produced the perfect response, rallying splendidly, and then striking twice in the last 10 minutes to seal the deal.

But I hope the Blues adopt the Breakers' approach to things. "Never get too high on the wins, or too low on the losses," is a constant mantra from the hoopers out at Atlas Place and I'm sure the knights, Sirs JK and Ted, will be working hard to keep feet on the ground this week.

The Blues forwards were strong and direct and the backline is full of game-breakers. The likes of Francis Saili, Rene Ranger, Charles Piutau and Frank Halai look capable of causing some serious damage this season.

But they would be wise to acknowledge how poorly the Hurricanes played, and accept they will not be afforded similar luxuries by the Crusaders on Friday night when we're likely to get a truer indication of the strength of these Blues.

Of the two losing sides, the Highlanders will take forth the most hope, though the loss of No 8 Nasi Manu to a serious foot injury is another blow to their resources.

Andrew Hore and Brad Thorn will make a huge difference to Jamie Joseph's pack, and they also look like they need Colin Slade's nous in the pivot. Somehow they've got to find a loose trio to do the business.

The Canes can surely only get better after opening with a shambolic effort. They showed in that second half what not to do against the Blues.

And the rest: Jake White's Brumbies have made a nice start across the ditch, while the Bulls had the most notable victory in the Republic. And the Kings are away though their win (over the Force) maybe said more about the weakness of their opponents than the strength of the new chums.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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