Three's a crowd in New Zealand conference

BATTLE AT THE TOP: The Chiefs and Crusaders played out an epic semifinal at Waikato Stadium in last year's Super Rugby playoffs.
BATTLE AT THE TOP: The Chiefs and Crusaders played out an epic semifinal at Waikato Stadium in last year's Super Rugby playoffs.

It's time to give the Chiefs a little respect. Sure, their home base is unfashionable, their squad largely unheralded and their prospects continually under-rated, but this franchise possesses one thing that everybody else desires.

Coach Dave Rennie and his strategically assembled coaching crew have found the formula for success in Super Rugby, and as a result the championship has set up a two-year residence in Hamilton.

Once might have been written off as a blip on the radar. But twice suggests rather strongly that Rennie, the professor Wayne Smith and their astute colleagues Tom Coventry and Andrew Strawbridge have found the answers that have eluded others.

Can they go for three in a row? Sure they can. Plenty of pieces remain from the previous two championships and though some faces have changed, the formula won't alter much out at the franchise's Ruakura headquarters.

It's now becoming increasingly well publicised how brutal this New Zealand conference is. But for the past two seasons the Chiefs have charted the main path out of it, and have those two titles to show for it.

History suggests the best New Zealand team goes on to win this championship - 12 times in 18 attempts - and if their rivals have any hope of chopping this budding dynasty off at its knees then they must understand the path goes right through Hamilton.

Only two Kiwi teams look capable of doing so this year. The Highlanders are too raw and inexperienced, even though they'll play with more heart and spirit than last year's sorry lot; and the Hurricanes just don't have the depth to sustain a challenge, even though there's some mighty talent in the capital.

That leaves us with the Crusaders - perennial contenders but serial offenders since their last title in 2008 - and Sir John Kirwan's loaded Blues lineup. One we know exactly what we're going to get; the other is the proverbial mystery envelope.

Both, if they're smart, will have studied the Chiefs very, very closely. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it's also a very good concept in sport.

Nothing much changes with the Crusaders, yet one important thing must. Todd Blackadder's team - beaten semifinalists or finalists for five straight years - have to understand the vital of the regular season and not give away so many valuable points so early.

The Red and Blacks, with their swag of All Blacks, have played too many big playoff games on the road since their last triumph in 2008. They're better than that.

The Blues, on the other hand, have too infrequently married their talent with tenacity. When they've been good, they've been impressive; too often they've found the other end of the spectrum.

The Crusaders crave the Chiefs' depth and consistency of performance; the Blues desire their teamwork, tenacity and ability to grind out tough wins under pressure.

There is hope for both. The Crusaders, with a motivated Richie McCaw back in the mix, have changed things up markedly as they look to get the best out of their over-worked internationals.

And those Blues. Just sift through the talent they've added: Ma'a Nonu, Jerome Kaino, Tony Woodcock, Benji Marshall and Tom Donnelly. As the Highlanders discovered, big names don't guarantee success but when you align them with rising young stars in Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau, Francis Saili and Frank Halai, and an established core of Keven Mealamu, Charlie Faumuina, Luke Braid and Piri Weepu you understand why there's such excitement in the big city.

Highly rated prop Joe Moody, who would have been an All Black tourist but for a leg fracture he's still mending, indicated Blackadder had been doing some tinkering in Crusader-land.

"We've changed how we've moved through the pre-season, and I like how we're looking. We've had a lot more rugby focus, whereas in the past the pre-season has been solely about getting fit and strong and leaving the rugby till the end.

"As a result we've been notoriously slow starters and then built through the season. If things go how I feel they should, we're going to have a much better start."

Moody said the importance of home advantage had been stressed already. "We're pushing to sort out that slow start, so come finals we're not having to play all those big games on the road."

McCaw's presence should help with that harder edge, and Dan Carter's absence is offset slightly by the addition of Colin Slade. The Crusader pack will get it done; any question marks revolve around their firepower out wide, and whether hulking Fijian Nemani Nadolo provides any solutions.

Veteran rake Mealamu doesn't mince his words around the Blues' challenge.

"It's being able to play to our potential," he says. "A team on paper doesn't stand for anything. It's about us growing a good culture that allows everyone to put in performances we can be proud of each week - and do that consistently."

Asked about getting the best out of players like Nonu and Woodcock, who have appeared to lose interest in Super Rugby, Mealamu said: "It's getting them aligned with what we're all trying to achieve. They're desperate and hungry for a championship as well, and that can only come if we all do it together.

"No disrespect to the other teams but we're hungry and motivated."

Kirwan, like Blackadder, has also made his adjustments. Nonu, after off-season ankle surgery, is being held back till around round three; Mealamu and Woodcock won't enter the fray till week two. A lot hangs on whether Marshall can grab his chance at 10 and just how influential big movers like Luatua and Piutau can be.

Whatever happens, the Chiefs will have to be knocked off their perch. They won't tumble of their own accord.

Some key men have gone, but it's a tantalising prospect to see what those master coaches can do with new additions like Jamie Mackintosh, Matt Symons, Robbie Fruean, Tom Marshall and a certain Mils Muliaina.

Utility back Robbie Robinson, hobbled by a mystery hip ailment, indicates confidence is high in title town. "We're training really hard and always looking to better ourselves . The coaches have worked hard at finding things that give us that extra edge, so there's no reason we can't do it again.

"It's more of the same but we want to do everything a bit better than what we did last year, and find new ways to stay on top. It takes a lot of work from the coaches and players, but everyone's prepared to work pretty hard."

That's what makes the Chiefs once again the team they're all chasing. Their scouting system creates enviable depth, their work ethic ensures they're always ready and their game plan has been honed almost to perfection.

The Crusaders and Blues are making the adjustments. But they're still chasing a formula very much made in Hamilton.

Sunday Star Times