All Black Sam Cane is adamant last year's standards won't be good enough if the Chiefs want to go for a three-peat of Super Rugby titles this season.
Still getting used to the bumps and bruises after returning to training last week after his holiday break and then playing against the Reds in Toowoomba last weekend, Cane will line up in his second trial match with the Chiefs tonight in Rotorua against the Blues at 6pm.
But the 22-year-old openside flanker with 14 test caps knows he and his team-mates already have big targets on their backs after back-to-back titles and will cop plenty from opposition sides right from the start.
"I suppose even after the first title in 2012, the public and media weren't 100 per cent behind us but this year I think we might be rated as favourites, so it's a little bit of a different area for us," Cane said.
"Our team's expectations are to go again. We've got a lot of new guys here and they're working bloody hard to try and prove themselves to us and to the management to try and get selected.
"But we've also got a core group of guys who have been here for a couple of years now and they realise the hard work that goes into winning a title and realise that we're going to have to pick our game up to a whole different level that we probably haven't been to before if we're going to be there come finals time.
"So there's a lot of hard work to be done and a lot of improvement to be made," he said.
John Kirwan's Blues look set to test the Chiefs with plenty of firepower tonight at International Stadium and a week later the champions journey south to Christchurch to open the 2014 competition against seven-time title winners, the Crusaders.
"That's the thing about this comp; it's so long and, if you slip up in a couple of games at the start of the season or in the middle, it can come back to hurt you at the end of season, whether that's home field advantage or the difference between making or missing out on the semis or quarters.
"We have to make sure we start well and are consistent throughout the season."
Injuries mean the Chiefs have plenty of players sidelined tonight and they will still be without some next week, but Cane said the team policy had always been to not talk about the unavailable players and just work with those who were.
"We've got faith in everyone in our squad and there's genuine competition out on the training pitch for shots. No-one's really sure who the starting 15 is going to be and that can only be good for training.
"You can see it out there sometimes when things get pretty physical, but we just have utter faith in whoever pulls on the jersey."
Cane is looking forward to another season battling with Bay of Plenty team-mate Tanerau Latimer for the No 7 jersey, which he says brings the best out in both players.
But he has also learned that, realistically, neither player can carry the starting load on their own in that position, and the management of his playing time helped him when it came to All Blacks' duty both in the middle and later in the year.
"You've just got to take a step back sometimes and realise what's best for the team."
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie said tonight's game was still a trial and they would use as many fit players as they could to give them a chance to stake a claim for the first competition match.
They also want to fine-tune their defensive and attack structures out on the park and Rennie said a big step-up was needed after a performance that lacked physicality against the Reds.
"Because of that, we lacked really quick ball and they were able to put us under pressure and certainly we didn't have the same intensity when we had the ball.
"Our lineout also battled but the boys have done a lot of work in those areas," Rennie said.
The Chiefs had not announced a squad for the match before this edition went to press.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Which two NZ teams look the most likely to make the Super Rugby playoffs?