It wasn't just Chiefs fans who breathed a sigh of relief when they heard skipper Craig Clarke had passed a fitness test and was named to lead the team into tomorrow night's Super Rugby final in Hamilton.
Hearing Clarke's name in the team read out by head coach Dave Rennie brought an excited response from the players themselves before the lineup was made public yesterday.
The 2m lock, who strained a medial ligament in his right knee during last Friday's semifinal win over the Crusaders, is a calming influence on the team and the players all know what happened when he wasn't there four weeks ago against the Crusaders.
"It was a real boost for the boys knowing that their skipper is going to be on the track," Rennie said yesterday afternoon when revealing an unchanged 22 from last week's semifinal win over the Crusaders to take on the Sharks at Waikato Stadium.
"We tested him this morning and he came through really well so we kept him out of the session this afternoon, it was a reasonably physical one, so he should be right to take part in the captain's run tomorrow and take the field on Saturday."
Clarke's "junior" locking partner, 21-year-old All Black Brodie Retallick, was certainly happy to have his second row mate back on board.
"It's just awesome what he's done and to have him out there, just with his leadership around the field and come lineout time, it's definitely a bonus to have him there," Retallick said.
Rennie said being able to field the same team that started the semifinal and the same reserves was great for the Chiefs as continuity was important at this time of the year.
"Other than say Richard Kahui we have got what we believe are our form players out on the track so it's really pleasing."
Having eight days between games had been good for the Chiefs in terms of enabling players to recover from the semifinal and that was a factor in selection.
"They're in a good frame of mind and everyone's jumping out of their skin to be part of it so it's exciting and we didn't feel we needed to make any changes."
The main training run of the week was conducted at Beetham Park in pouring rain, but with just the sort of intensity and accuracy the coaches were looking for.
"We were very happy. It was actually a lot sharper than this time last week.
"It was slippery conditions today and it could well be like that on Saturday night as well so we trained accordingly.
"The boys were pretty accurate from an attacking point of view and pretty physical defensively.
"Our spark plugs (reserves and non-playing squad members) got into us again and it's just been a good session."
Rennie said the coaches had wanted a fair bit of intensity from the players at training in regard to getting off the line and shutting down the opposition space and they got it.
The Sharks arrived in Hamilton last night and later announced a team with two changes, Paul Jordaan coming in at inside centre in place of the injured Tim Whitehead and Patrick Lambie replacing Riaan Viljoen at fullback.Both players have returned from injury.
Chiefs: Robbie Robinson, Tim Nanai-Williams, Andrew Horrell, Sonny Bill Williams, Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Kane Thompson, Tanerau Latimer, Liam Messam, Brodie Retallick, Craig Clarke (c), Ben Tameifuna, Mahonri Schwalger, Sona Taumalolo. Res: Hika Elliot, Ben Afeaki, Mike Fitzgerald, Sam Cane, Brendon Leonard, Jackson Willison, Lelia Masaga.
Sharks: Patrick Lambie, Louis Ludik, JP Pietersen, Paul Jordaan, Lwazi Mvovo, Frederick Michalak, Charl McLeod, Ryan Kankowski, Marcell Coetzee, Keegan Daniel (c), Anton Bresler, Willem Alberts, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tenda Mtawira. Res: Craig Burdon, Wiehan Herbst, Steven Sykes, Jean Deysel, Jacques Botes, Meyer Bosman, Riaan Viljoen.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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