Chiefs run hot on the big stage
It all started with new coach Dave Rennie and his staff targeting "a lot of hard-working, honest buggers" and finished with a Super Rugby title on Saturday night.
The Chiefs did not freeze on the big stage, instead incorporating all that was good about their season in one last intense 80-minute effort to beat the travel-weary Sharks 37-6 in the rain-soaked grand final at Waikato Stadium.
The Sharks were always up against it after crossing the Indian Ocean three times in as many weeks to reach the final from sixth qualifying position, playing the three conference winners on consecutive weekends. But they still hit the Chiefs hard with a big opening effort of their own and it took a big step up from the home side to quell them early on and then take control with superior attack and defence, winning the collisions at both ends.
The Chiefs fittingly finished with their biggest win of the year - 31 points - and it took them to easily their most points ever scored in a season - 501 - and their most wins - 14.
Rennie said the players they had chosen last year had put big efforts out on the park for them week after week this season and mixed in with the leadership of existing experienced players like co-captains Craig Clarke and Liam Messam and loose forward Tanerau Latimer had really made a difference to their performance levels.
"They've been a lot of fun to work with and it's fantastic to get a result," he said.
While the Sharks faced a tough assignment travelling back here from South Africa after winning their semifinal, he said he always expected the visitors to "front" physically.
"She was a bit of an arm wrestle early on and we had a couple of loose passes that if they'd landed in their hands it would have put us under pressure but they were forced to make a lot of tackles in the first half and I think it took its toll in the second half."
Once the Chiefs got their kicking game right and forced the Sharks to play much of the game inside their own half there was only ever going to be one result.
The Sharks had to make 74 tackles to the Chiefs' 27 in the first spell, missed 14 to the Chiefs' three and had only 36 per cent of possession in that time.
Once again the Chiefs' defence, which has been the hallmark of this side in 2012, was outstanding, often driving the Sharks back and forcing basic handling errors.
Once the Chiefs got in behind the defence through Aaron Cruden's kicking, they started to open them up with ball in hand.
There might have been just the one try by winger Tim Nanai-Williams in that first spell for a 13-3 halftime lead but the damage was done and that was a big part of the Chiefs scoring another three through No 8 Kane Thompson, replacement winger Lelia Masaga and standout second-five Sonny Bill Williams in the second stanza.
Every Chiefs player contributed to the collective effort with not only hard work in their own roles but at least one piece of individual brilliance each.
It was an outstanding effort for match skipper Clarke to get through 80 minutes with his grade two medial ligament strain, which had been strapped up for the game but had not been injected.
"We went through to Thursday and then assessed it and it felt actually quite good strapped up so it was good to know then that it was all go because it was annoying not knowing," Clarke said.
"I was just a bit stiff at the end - the last 10."
Rennie praised his captain for playing with an injury that normally required a six to eight-week recovery.
"To get 80 minutes out of him tonight speaks volumes for the character of the man," Rennie said.
Clarke said he felt for the Sharks, having been through the disappointment of losing a final himself in 2009 after travelling to South Africa.
Sharks coach John Plumtree said it would be naive not to accept that the travel had taken its toll on his team.
Nevertheless, while he he had been unhappy with some of the obstructive tactics of the Chiefs at the rucks and lineouts he said they just couldn't handle what the winning team had thrown at them.
"The Chiefs were very good tonight. When we stopped their momentum with our defence Aaron Cruden was just putting the ball over the top of us and finding space," Plumtree said.
"They kept finding a way to get momentum, whether it was through their kicking game or through the way they played through Sonny Bill Williams. We stopped their forwards but then we had to stop him.
"They had some outstanding tiers of attack in those conditions tonight, just won the collisions defensively and on attack we just couldn't gain the advantage line so it was always really tough for us tonight," he said.