There were doubts toward the end but the Chiefs' resolve was stronger in 2012, writes Evan Pegden.
It seemed almost presumptuous through last year's Super Rugby season, but time after time Chiefs players when interviewed talked about their goal to win the title.
Nothing unusual in that. Players and teams always aim to win their competition.
But this was different. There was a quiet confidence that could hardly be attributed to the 16 seasons that had gone before. The Chiefs had only twice before visited the semifinals and only once gone all the way to the final where they were trounced 61-17.
That firm belief in what they were doing and what it could bring about had been instilled by one of the best coaching teams put together in New Zealand rugby.
The ex-teacher quartet of Dave Rennie and his assistants Tom Coventry, Wayne Smith and Andrew Strawbridge had targeted "hard-working, honest buggers" in their recruitment drive, plucking a mixture of little-known youngsters and grizzled veterans to fill 15 holes in the 31-man squad.
And Rennie had a simple game plan for them that emphasised a big improvement in gaining quality set-piece possession, taking the ball forward through the forwards and blockbusting second-five Sonny Bill Williams and unleashing the backs out wide.
It was all about tempo and hard work, doing it as a unified group, thus the reason behind the recruitment philosophy and the big pre-season emphasis on fitness.
There are now 16 games in the regular Super Rugby season and it is a long haul to get through, broken up by a couple of byes and the June international window. There are going to be peaks and troughs, there are going to be hiccups and there are going to be injuries so the young players in the squad have to step up when called upon - and they did.
It speaks volumes for the buy-in the coaches and management team got from the players, helped by the fact those same players had contributed to the setting of that over-used word "culture" within the team in acknowledging their links with the region, its Maori heritage and those who had gone before.
It worked and the culture is a strong one. Pride in the jersey was unprecedented, something that helped overcome any obstacles thrown at the team along the way.
Those obstacles came right from the start and in some ways were a blessing in hardening the team's resolve.
A loss first-up to the Highlanders at home accompanied in the same game by the loss to major injuries of tighthead prop Ben Afeaki, loosehead prop Toby Smith, halfback Brendon Leonard and wing Lelia Masaga should have knocked the stuffing out of the side but instead they came charging back to win the next 10 matches in a row, including a clean sweep of their swing through Perth, Bloemfontein and Durban.
Youngsters Brodie Retallick, Ben Tameifuna, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Asaeli Tikoirotuma stood up alongside the likes of cool and consistent captain Craig Clarke, colourful try-scoring prop Sona Taumalolo and two loose forwards finding a new lease on life in Liam Messam and Tanerau Latimer.
They faltered against the Reds in Brisbane (before their second bye) in a bizarre match where both teams scored most of their points in brief but hectic scoring barrages either side of the break. Then, with a home semifinal in the bag, they dropped their last two in tough local derbies against the Crusaders and Hurricanes.
There were probably those around the country who thought that was it for the Chiefs, that they'd hit the wall and the dream run that many had regularly predicted would come to an end for much of the season had finally stalled.
But the pressure was off the Chiefs and subconsciously they seemed to take the foot off the pedal, collectively taking a deep breath before the heat of the playoffs.
That breath, that included a bye in the first round of the playoffs, was not wasted. The Chiefs came back stronger than ever to steamroll the Crusaders in the semifinal at Waikato Stadium 20-17.
There was an aggressiveness and almost cocky swagger among the Chiefs forwards that took the red and blacks by surprise.
The final, thanks to the sixth-qualifying Sharks unlikely giant-killing run in the playoffs was suddenly theirs to lose, hosted at home at Waikato Stadium and the South Africans disadvantaged by a gruelling travel schedule.
After a hesitant start, the Chiefs ripped the visitors apart 37-6 and had the title wrapped up well before the final whistle. The jubilant scenes that followed, including the Chiefs' own special haka for the crowd, created a special atmosphere that instantly scrubbed away all the pain of the seasons gone before for the long-suffering fans.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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