What has to happen for the Chiefs to win another Super Rugby championship?
Let's start with the easier stuff.
No 1. The coaching team has to keep its nerve.
Dave Rennie has never been a coach on an emotional knife edge. Don't think the public comments about forward passes and the talent drain are signs he's rattled. He's just telling the truth.
Some of the technical reasoning over what a forward pass is has been a painful, tragic reminder of why rugby, as an international sport, suffers from the fact the rules are so crazily complex you'd swear they were written by a cabal of Boston lawyers.
And when Steve Hansen, another man not famous for wearing a bleeding heart on his sleeve, says international players may force a more humane programme for the world season, genuine issues are emerging. Rennie happens to be the individual who's expressing universal concerns.
No 2. The players have to keep defending like their lives are at stake.
The win over the Hurricanes wasn't flash, but it was based on defence fierce enough to make you flinch in the stand.
Liam Messam and Ben Afeaki are key men there, and so is Tanerau Latimer, who this year has often offered a sharper edge than the All Blacks selection panel's choice, Sam Cane. Cane's a very good player, but when the hand-to-hand stuff gets as fierce as it is at this stage of the season, Latimer looks the right man for the dirty work. Now the demands for the Chiefs get tougher.
No more injuries has to be at the top of the wish list. The casualty list has been brutal, and has shown few signs of slowing down.
It was bad enough losing Richard Kahui. An uninjured Kahui would have offered all the power and steel lost when Sonny Bill Williams went to league.
But there have been so many week-by-week fitness problems in the midfield, the coaches rarely have the luxury of actually selecting a second-five/centre combination. It's more a case of the medical staff finding a pair still healthy after a Wednesday training session.
And there's a specific duo the Chiefs need unharmed through to, at the least, the June break.
Aaron Cruden is one. The goalkicker, the tactician, and an oasis of calm under pressure, he's now to the Chiefs what Dan Carter is to the All Blacks. Both teams can win without them, but life is hugely less stressful when they're on deck.
As Cruden's former All Blacks, now Chiefs backline coach, Wayne Smith, says: "Aaron has very similar characteristics to Daniel. They both do a lot of homework, and both have a lot of rugby nous and game understanding." In other words, they run the show.
Craig Clarke is another key to the Chiefs' success. A superb leader, he works unrelentingly, which is a great start for a captain who needs to demand extra effort from his men. But what's even more important is his control.
We saw it last year, when, without Clarke, the Chiefs lineout fell to bits against the Crusaders in a late round-robin game. Then, in the final with the Sharks, with Clarke calling the shots, the lineout shone.
It helps, too, that Clarke is an old-style good bloke, who maintains composure on the field to the point that, on Friday night when referee Lourens van der Merwe suggested a handbag swinging moment between Messam and T J Perenara involved "more a shove than a punch", Clarke actually laughed.
Finally, the Chiefs need some of the unheralded players to keep turning up the way Robbie Robinson did against the Canes, stepping and running so well he left tacklers grasping at his shadow.
Don't tear up your tickets on the Chiefs yet.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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