Challenging times ahead for the Chiefs
SUPER RUGBY PREVIEW 2018 - TEAM BY TEAM: In the eighth instalment of our 15-part build-up to the season we look at the Chiefs. It will be followed by the rest of the New Zealand teams and then the Australian conference.
The Chiefs are set to face their most challenging year in over a decade after enjoying unprecedented success under former coach Dave Rennie. The Rennie era is over at the Chiefs - and with him a host of key players such as Aaron Cruden, Hika Elliot, Michael Leitch and James Lowe have departed.
Rennie transformed the Chiefs from also-rans into an attacking superpower during his time at the helm, capturing two titles in the first two years. The third title proved elusive despite the Chiefs getting better as Cruden aged and Damian McKenzie emerged. They lit up the competition in the early stages of 2016 and 2017 but stumbled in the finals in late season fade-outs.
It is set to be a transition year for the Waikato-based franchise. How can you lose such quality and maintain the same level of success? It will be a tremendous achievement if they remain one of the top teams.
New head coach Colin Cooper will no doubt have his own style of play to implement, and this is bound to take time to bear fruit. Add in the fact the Chiefs will also lose Super Rugby’s best attacking fullback when they move Damian McKenzie into first five-eighth, there seems to be too much change to overcome without road bumps.
It must be a tempting to keep the star where he has been so valuable to them, but with the departure of Cruden now is the time to build around McKenzie at 10. Although whether he will be as effective without the foil of another quality playmaker remains to be seen.
The strength of the Chiefs looks to be in the forwards with the likes of Kane Hames, Mitch Graham, Brodie Retallick, Dominic Bird, Sam Cane and Liam Messam. With the bulk of experience in the pack, the team will continue their unrelenting pressure up front as the young backs figure things out.
However, there is no shortage of talent in backs, with Shaun Stevenson, Solomon Alaimalo and Toni Pulu ready to step up into more prominent roles. There will be concerns around mid-fielder Charlie Ngatai’s health, giving opportunities to Alex Nankivall, Regan Verney and Johnny Fa'auli.
Tim Nanai-Williams and Anton Lienert-Brown will be crucial to this emerging backline, but the best of this young crop will be seen in future years if they can remain together.
The Chiefs will still be a good side, but if there was any year for them to struggle - this is it. They will battle for third in the New Zealand conference with the Highlanders and Blues, but we will back the Blues to finally produce and leave the Chiefs last in the New Zealand conference.
New Zealand Conference Placing: Fifth
Player of the Year: Brodie Retallick
Rookie of the Year: Luke Jacobson
Breakout Player: Solomon Alaimalo
Best Signing: Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi
Super Rugby Placing: Mid-table
Best finish: Champions in 2012 and 2013
Worst finish: Eleventh in 2010
In: Tyler Ardron (Ospreys), Levi Aumua (Tasman), Fin Hoeata (Taranaki), Tiaan Falcon (Hawke's Bay), Luke Jacobson (Waikato), Marty McKenzie (Crusaders), Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi (Hurricanes), Regan Verney (Wellington).
Out: Finlay Christie (Hurricanes), Aaron Cruden (Montpellier), Stephen Donald (Counties Manukau), Hika Elliot (Oyonnax), Siegfried Flsiihoi (Stade Francais), Glen Fisiiahi (Counties Manukau), Tawera Kerr-Balow (La Rochelle), Michael Leitch (Sunwolves), James Lowe (Leinster), Matiaha Martin (Counties Manukau), Brayden Mitchell (Southland), Tom Sanders (Crusaders), Sebastian Siataga (Bay of Plenty), Chase Tiatia (Bay of Plenty), James Tucker (Waikato).
Squad: Liam Polwart, Nathan Harris, Samisoni Taukei'aho, Aidan Ross, Atu Moli, Kane Hames, Mitchell Graham, Nepo Laulala, Sosefo Kautai, Brodie Retallick, Dominic Bird, Fin Hoeata, Michael Allardice, Lachlan Boshier, Liam Messam, Luke Jacobson, Mitchell Brown, Mitchell Karpik, Sam Cane, Taleni Seu, Tyler Ardron, Brad Weber, Jonathan Taumateine, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Damian McKenzie, Marty McKenzie, Tiaan Falcon, Alex Nankivell, Anton Lienert-Brown, Charlie Ngatai, Johnny Fa'auli, Regan Verney, Levi Aumua, Sam McNicol, Shaun Stevenson, Solomon Alaimalo, Toni Pulu, Tim Nanai-Williams.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass
* Don't miss the rest New Zealand Conference and also the Australian conference in the coming weeks.