Chiefs can't afford to slip up again in Sydney

EVAN PEGDEN
Last updated 05:00 19/04/2013
Brendon Leonard
Photosport
RUNNING THE SHOW: Halfback Brendon Leonard will try to get a stuttering Chiefs backline firing against the Waratahs in Sydney.

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The Chiefs last year proved the value of getting on an early winning roll and chalking up the competition points to provide a late-season buffer as the stampede for Super Rugby playoff spots gathered speed.

They didn't have their second loss until their 10th game and that meant when they spluttered out of the June test window break with a narrow win and two losses in tough New Zealand conference games they were still able to claim a home semifinal, which, in the end became a home final thanks to other results.

After last Saturday's 31-23 loss to the Reds, the Chiefs have now had five wins and two losses.

That still leaves them leading the New Zealand conference and second overall just four points behind the table-topping Brumbies, who have played an extra game.

The loss to the Reds though was the first time in seven games that the Chiefs had failed to register a competition point and another loss tonight in Sydney against the Waratahs will see a lot of the good earlier work unravel.

"The early part of the competition is crucial," coach Dave Rennie said.

"It's such a tough competition, everyone beats everyone and you've got to pick up your points along the way.

"If we'd done that last week we would have been in a pretty strong position but that's gone now and we just need to make sure we pick up points this week."

The Chiefs have to find the finishing polish that saw them score more tries than any other team in their first four games.

The Waratahs have lost four of their seven matches so far, are 10th on the ladder and have leaked 20 tries while scoring 14.

The Chiefs, who had scored 18 tries in the first four games, have scored five in their last three but still top the standings for most tries alongside the Blues and for most clean line breaks - 74.

The statistics might stack up against the Waratahs but Rennie is wary that just like his own side, they have the talent at their disposal and are poised to produce a breakout performance.

"They don't kick as much as most sides, so they tend to hang on to a lot of ball and, as a result, they have a high number of line breaks, most carry metres and their backline is full of talent, while they have a lot of Wallabies in their pack as well," he said.

"Maybe they are a side just waiting to fire and when they do someone will cop it. We've just got to make sure it's not us.

"The boys are highly motivated after last week being so disappointing in front of a good home crowd. We didn't do what we should have done," he said.

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The Chiefs coaches have continued their habit of changing their starting line-ups to keep players fresh andcompetition for places hot.

The loose forward trio looks better balanced this week and, if the pack can again produce a solid effort at set-piece time and improve at the breakdowns, halfback Brendon Leonard should be able to spark a backline that has been threatening to run riot.

The Waratahs have made three changes, with the return of both hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau and No 8 Wycliff Palu from injuries.

Coach Michael Cheika has also bought in wing Cam Crawford, who will make his debut. That will be in place of Peter Betham.

He expects Wallabies Polota-Nau and Palu to step up against the Chiefs.

If the Chiefs can find their finish and get back to chalking up a bonus point win they will breathe a lot easier going into next week's home game against the team they beat in last year's grand final, the Sharks.

It seems likely they will welcome back at least two and possibly three players from injury for that match.

Co-captain Craig Clarke hopes to get a concussion clearance from a specialist today, hooker Mahonri Schwalger is set to return from his knee problems and tighthead prop Ben Afeaki is an outside shot at making it back early from his high ankle sprain.

AT A GLANCE

NSW Waratahs: Israel Folau, Cam Crawford, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Rob Horne, Drew Mitchell, Bernard Foley, Brendan McKibbin, Wycliff Palu, Michael Hooper, Dave Dennis (c), Kane Douglas, Sitaleki Timani, Sekope Kepu, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Robinson. Res (from): John Ulugia, Paddy Ryan, Mitchell Chapman, Will Skelton, Pat McCutcheon, Matt Lucas, Ben Volavola, Peter Betham

Chiefs: Andrew Horrell, Lelia Masaga, Charlie Ngatai, Richard Kahui, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Brendon Leonard, Fritz Lee, Sam Cane, Liam Messam (c), Brodie Retallick, Mike Fitzgerald, Ben Tameifuna, Hika Elliot, Pauliasi Manu. Res: Rhys Marshall, Mike Kainga, Nick Crosswell, Tanerau Latimer, August Pulu, Gareth Anscombe, Tim Nanai-Williams.

Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Kickoff: 9.40 tonight at Allianz Stadium (SFS), Sydney

- Waikato Times

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