Chiefs coach Dave Rennie likes what he's seen from his returning quintet of All Blacks.
Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Sam Cane, Liam Messam and Brodie Retallick reported for training this week after a well-deserved layoff following another long season.
But once they hit their Ruakura base on Monday, the meet-and-greets were quickly over with and their treat on return was the yo-yo fitness test.
Rennie noted that with the combative but high-paced game the Chiefs play, the fitness component was crucial.
There is some great competition among the group, with Retallick having to see his personal best eclipsed by fellow lock Matt Symons, and Kerr-Barlow toughing out a great score of 21, determined to see off fellow halfback Jono Kitto, who had hit 20.6.
"They've come back in really well, as you'd expect," Rennie said of his top five. "They're part of our leadership group and for them to turn up in anything other than good condition would be a pretty poor example. They're not quite as good as some of the other guys who've been in for a few weeks, but they're not far away.
"It's important that they have a decent break. I know some outfits have brought in players a little bit earlier but we were pretty keen for our guys to stay away. They've had two big years, a lot of those All Blacks, especially with us going to the final, they don't get much break between then and the international window."
Rennie kept right away from the All Blacks over their break, apart from speaking a bit with Cruden regarding some subtle changes in tactics they're looking at implementing.
This Friday, the team will have a hit-out among themselves plus a few extras, with none of the All Blacks to take part in that. The following Saturday they play the Reds in Toowoomba, with Messam and Retallick to sit that one out, before all are set to play the Blues in Rotorua on February 14, ahead of their competition opener against the Crusaders in Christchurch on February 21.
New loose forward Liam Squire is touch-and-go for that game, having suffered a knee cartilage injury.
Fellow loosie Tevita Koloamatangi has injured his knee too, but should be close for the Blues pre-season game, while prop Ben Tameifuna should be back on the field in the next couple of days after rolling an ankle last week.
The hooker situation is still a worry, with Mahonri Schwalger still getting over knee and eye issues, while a decision around Hika Elliot's future looms following his drastic neck surgery.
"Obviously we've met with Hika, and so we'll go through a process now with New Zealand [Rugby] in regard to whether he'll play Super Rugby or not, this year," Rennie said. "Over the next few months it'll give him a chance to do a bit of rehab and get a bit of training in and then he'll have to make some decisions about what he does after that. But it's pretty positive from a doctor's point of view that long-term he'll be able to play again, it's just when."
As the Chiefs begin their quest for a three-peat of titles, Rennie said there was a lot of desire among what is a "pretty competitive group".
"They're really determined, still the same sort of characteristics we've talked a lot about in the last couple of years around hard work and so on. I guess our job is to continue to create an environment where we grow further and have guys who are just as desperate as we were to win a first title a couple of years ago, and to front again. I think that's the good thing about bringing new players in, they all want to be part of a winning team."
Rennie has indicated that despite Craig Clarke leaving, they will still probably opt for co-captains, and will confirm who those leaders are soon.
- Fairfax Media
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