The Chiefs found themselves with targets on their backs this time after their surprise championship victory in 2012, but in the end they followed a similar path to success.
This time they went one better in the regular season in finishing top of the table, but just like in 2012, they went into the final weekend sitting in second place before the last half-dozen results went their way.
The Chiefs claimed a hard-fought 26-16 victory over the Blues at Eden Park; the previous front-runners, the Bulls, finished with a heavy 30-13 loss to the Stormers at Newlands; and the third-placed Brumbies went down 21-15 to the Force in Perth.
That left the Chiefs on top with 66 points, the South African Conference-winning Bulls on 63 and both the Australian Conference champion Brumbies and New Zealand Conference runners-up, the Crusaders, on 60.
While the Chiefs and Bulls enjoyed byes, the Crusaders thumped the Reds in Christchurch 38-9 and the Brumbies also had home success in less convincing fashion, 15-13 in Canberra, in the two qualifying round matches.
For the second year in a row, that set up a semifinal showdown between the Chiefs and the record-holding Crusaders at Waikato Stadium and again it was the home side who narrowly came away with the honours - 20-19 thanks to a super defensive effort that kept the visitors to just one sensational try, from All Blacks fullback Israel Dagg.
Meanwhile, the Brumbies, who had set the pace in the regular season for a large chunk of it, did what many thought was impossible - they travelled to Pretoria and upset the Bulls 26-23 with a late try at the fortress-like Loftus Versfeld.
Just as it was for the Sharks the year before, the travel factor was against the Brumbies as they returned home for a quick turnaround to play the Chiefs in Hamilton in the final, but with the shrewd Jake White at the reins the Australians put in a massive effort before going down 27-22 to give the home side their second title in as many seasons.
Again, much credit had to go to the brains-trust - the four-man coaching team of Dave Rennie, Tom Coventry, Wayne Smith and Andrew Strawbridge.
This was not an easy season for them. Sonny Bill Williams had departed to the NRL and every opponent lifted against the playing-through champions.
The injury toll was extremely high and the Chiefs were forced to dip deep into their playing resources, rotating midfielders and No 8s in particular, but the canny recruiting by the coaching quartet, who placed a premium on character and work ethic, again paid off as those who were called upon mostly stepped up to the mark.
The Bulls' metronomic kicker, Morne Steyn, might have finished as the competition's top points-scorer with 248, and Blues wing Frank Halai top try scorer with 10, but the Chiefs had plenty of individual heroes to back up their all-conquering team ethos.
The team made first five-eighth Aaron Cruden their player of the year and that was hard to argue with. Niggling injuries meant he gave up the goal-kicking duties to converted fullback Gareth Anscombe for the first half of the season, but his generalship of the team was again superb and he sparked the attacking style the Chiefs have become known for.
Liam Messam was the player of the final and continues to go from strength to strength as a blindside flanker/No 8, while Tanerau Latimer was never far behind him and lock Brodie Retallick was the epitome of a workaholic tight forward.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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