The Chiefs' player depth has carried them impressively through heavy injury tolls this season and last.
But how successfully they now replace their talisman pivot Aaron Cruden for the next two months will determine just how far they go in this year's Super Rugby championship.
Cruden has been ruled out of rugby for an estimated six to eight weeks with a broken left thumb suffered in Sunday's heart-stopping 43-43 draw with the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
The fracture was not discovered until Cruden visited a Bloemfontein hospital for an X-ray after that match. The Chiefs returned home late last night.
Up until now Cruden has not missed a game during his two and a bit seasons for the Chiefs, starting all 42 matches from 2012 to this year.
In fact he has only left the field to be replaced twice during those three seasons - both last year. The first time was 60 minutes into the second game against the Cheetahs which was a 45-3 home blowout win and the second was 64 minutes into the second-last round-robin match against the Crusaders which was a 43-15 blowout defeat in Christchurch.
While some say the Chiefs' ability to cover for the loss of injured players will leave them in good stead and it is the All Blacks that should be worried in case Cruden is not back for the June three-test home series against England, in fact the opposite is true.
Under Dave Rennie's reign the Chiefs have never had to start anyone other than Cruden in the No10 jersey, while the All Blacks have young Hurricanes pivot Beauden Barrett already blooded at test level and playing well, even if first-choice Dan Carter ison sabbatical.
The first All Blacks test against England on June 7 in Auckland is nine weeks away and it will merely be a matter of whether Cruden has managed any rugby before that as to whether he is selected, barring any complications with his recovery.
But the Chiefs have to come up with a replacement for this Saturday night against Melbourne's Rebels at Waikato Stadium, which is followed on successive weekends by the Crusaders, Brumbies, Lions and Blues before the Chiefs' next bye.
If Cruden gets back in six weeks he should be available for the first game after that bye, which is against the Hurricanes in Wellington on May 24. That is followed by the Waratahs in New Plymouth on May 31 before the June international window.
Voted by fans as the Chiefs' player of the year in both 2012 and 2013, Cruden was also last year's player of the year winner as decided by the Chiefs' coaching staff.
He became the Chiefs most prolific one-season points scorer in his first year year with 251 points, while niggling injuries kept him away from the kicking tee for the first half of last season or more but he still managed to score 102 points and was the key to their attack as well as a courageous defender.
Gareth Anscombe, who is a prolific goal-kicker managing 166 points last season while kicking in Cruden's place, is the obvious replacement having been originally signed by the Chiefs for 2013 as the back-up No10.
He has made a success of the fullback spot instead, thanks to Cruden's durability until now and it will be a matter of whether the coaches want to shift him to first-five and bring Mils Muliaina in at 15 or instead use Andrew Horrell at pivot if they manage to get some midfielders back from injury.
The Chiefs had to cope with a range of injuries last season before retaining their Super Rugby title, but have been challenged even further this year to test their well-established depth.
Now they face the biggest test in one of the most important positions on the field when they have not had a win in the last three weeks on tour with a loss to the Force and high-scoring comeback draws against the Bulls and Cheetahs.
But if they can pass that test they are quite capable of staying in charge of the New Zealand Conference, which is the key to a favourable playoff spot later in the season.
- Waikato Times
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