Bond of brothers helps Chiefs deliver again

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 16/03/2014

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Call it a unique competitive advantage. The biggest difference between the Chiefs and the rest is their seamless ability to integrate, and extract the best from, each and every player.

A case could be made that, this year, most other Kiwi teams have attempted to adopt the Chiefs' rotation policy.

It's now a well-known fact the defending champions' blueprint sees them utilise their full squad - with influential leaders Aaron Cruden and Liam Messam providing the constant backbone - to avoid burnout.

"We've found over the last couple of years that's worked for us. Certainly the guys who got an opportunity tonight fronted," coach Dave Rennie said following Friday's bonus point win over the Stormers, which saw his side make a major step up and maintain this year's three-match unbeaten run.

"Our leaders do a fantastic job. We've got some very good players around those young guys. There's a lot of stuff done from a relationship perspective during the week, but they're growing quickly."

Already this season, perplexing selections have been frequent from the Blues, Crusaders and Hurricanes. Israel Dagg's and T J Perenara's respective benchings at the Crusaders and Hurricanes were designed to send a specific form message, but Sir John Kirwan's chop-and-change mentality with Blues first five-eighth Simon Hickey and impressive lock Patrick Tuipulotu is very much in the Chiefs' mould. Predominantly, these decisions have not found success.

Often, second-string players such as Hurricanes second-five Cardiff Vaega have been brutally exposed. If not managed correctly rotation can also knock confidence.

A winning culture helps, but to build the commonly touted "competition for places" you must boast depth and genuine versatility to back it up. On the evidence of the opening rounds, few others can match the Chiefs in this area.

"There's great depth in this squad, and a number of players who can play different positions as well," Tom Marshall, who made his return at second-five after transferring from the Crusaders this year, said.

"It makes it pretty easy when the inevitable injuries come in a long competition.

"Playing out there, it's got a really good feel. The boys show a lot of character. You can see why they've gone back-to-back."

Rennie has now lost midfielder Charlie Ngatai for at least six weeks with a calf injury. And in a cruel blow after a standout performance in his first start, wing James Lowe will also be sidelined for four to six weeks with a medial ligament knee complaint. Such losses would severely affect other teams. It would be a surprise if that were the case with Rennie's men.

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All Blacks flanker Sam Cane, utility Andrew Horrell and livewire halfback Augustine Pulu will board the plane to Perth this week. All three are in contention to make their return from injury against the Force. Throw in All Blacks centurion Mils Muliana, who was rested, and Rennie's options become abundantly clear.

The dominant win over the Stormers showcased yet another example of rookies almost immediately finding their feet. Nowhere was that more evident than from Tasman No 8 Liam Squire.

For the last two years the Chiefs have got by at the back of the scrum. They may now have found a permanent figure. Squire's physical presence and athletic abilities have the franchise enthused at his potential. Expect to see plenty more from this 22-year-old kid.

"The coaches said to me before I went out there just to play my natural game," Squire said.

"It made me more comfortable. I was very nervous about it but it was awesome to get a start."

As always, the Chiefs remain firmly grounded.

"We'll take a lot of confidence, not arrogance, over to Perth," Cruden said.

"There's a difference there."

Indeed. Just one of many keeping this team ahead of the pack.

- Sunday News

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