Chiefs' Super Rugby title hopes look shot, with gruelling playoffs travel schedule to overcome
It's a big sense of deja vu for the Chiefs, whose Super Rugby title hopes now seem almost non-existent.
For a second year in succession they will travel to Cape Town to face the Stormers in the quarterfinals, and while that in itself is indeed a winnable fixture, the fact they will have to return to New Zealand for a semifinal is the big issue, not to mention a final the following weekend, which could be in Johannesburg.
It's just a proven fact that teams don't win this competition on the road - the air miles eventually take a heavy toll - and it was case in point for the Chiefs last year when they belted the Stormers 60-21 but on return to Wellington for a semifinal against the Hurricanes were barely able to fire a shot in a 25-9 loss.
After beating the Brumbies 28-10 in their final-round match in Hamilton on Saturday night the Chiefs did all they could to try and avoid the arduous trek to South Africa and earn an easier passage, to Canberra, however when the Hurricanes tipped up the Crusaders later in the night they squeezed out the Chiefs for fifth spot, finishing one point ahead on the conference ladder.
In reality, all four New Zealand teams should really earn home advantage for the quarterfinals, such has been their dominance - the Lions excepted, though they didn't even have to face Kiwi opposition this year - but that's not how things operate under Sanzaar's masterpiece.
The Chiefs may in the end rue a couple of bonus points here or there they could have attained, and will certainly look back at their draw with the Blues - a team the Sunwolves ended up belting - as a big missed opportunity.
So, after watching their travel fate sealed from their FMG Stadium Waikato dressing room during their post-match recovery, the Chiefs boarded a bus to Auckland at a sprightly 2am on Sunday. A flight to Sydney followed, with the long haul to Cape Town, via Johannesburg, not seeing the Chiefs arrive in Stormers territory till around Tuesday morning NZ time.
And with the way things have worked out, under Sanzaar's new predetermined format for the semifinals this year, the Chiefs know that a win there (kickoff 3am Sunday NZ time) will have them flying all the way back, because they are on the same side of the draw as the Crusaders and Highlanders, who clash in Christchurch on Saturday night.
If the Crusaders win their quarterfinal, the semifinal would be in Christchurch, while if the Highlanders win, the semifinal would be in Hamilton. Then, if the Chiefs were to make the final, it would be away to the Lions, Brumbies or Hurricanes, with the only way for the decider to be in Hamilton being if the Chiefs host the eighth-placed Sharks, who would have to beat the Lions away then the Brumbies or Hurricanes away.
It all amounts to seemingly mission impossible, but all the Chiefs will be thinking about is their next 80 minutes.
Coach Dave Rennie said last year's effort in the same circumstances meant they know they can perform on a short turnaround, but that the Stormers' 34-26 win over them in round seven would have them guarded.
"I thought they were excellent last time we played them and we were probably a couple of shades off where we needed to be," Rennie said. "So there won't be any complacency, that's for sure."
Co-captain Aaron Cruden said the belief in the team remained high, going in to what he reckoned would be a typically physical South African challenge. The playmaker said that trainer Phil Healey would likely have some plans in place to try and combat last year's running out of gas for a return semifinal, but that of course they had to get the first job done.
"This group's pretty confident, in terms of our ability," he said. "It'll just be making sure that we travel really well. We'll make sure we get over there and we try and hit the ground running, just like we did last year.
"But it's going to be a different journey this year, and we'll just sort of ride the wave and see where we end up, and get excited by the fact that we're in a quarterfinal, regardless of where it is."
For Cruden and the rest of the departees it wasn't for sure known whether Saturday's Brumbies game, in front of 13,753, was their last on home turf.
"It wasn't talked about too much to be fair, I think different individuals will react and respond a little bit differently to it, but if that was to be my last game on Waikato Stadium here, I'm glad it ended in a win, because I've had such fond memories here," Cruden said.
"This competition, you never know what it's going to throw up, but you put good things out into the universe and who knows, hopefully we might be back here for a semi or a final, we'll just see what happens."
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