Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Chiefs must earn respect all over again

Champions must start building up respect all over again, beginning with the Highlanders tonight

The Chiefs will face new challenges this season.  Photo / NZ Herald
The Chiefs will face new challenges this season. Photo / NZ Herald

Respect, says Craig Clarke, is the most important thing for the Chiefs this season.

An often inspirational figure in the second row as the franchise won its first Super Rugby title against the odds last year, Clarke said this week his side had to go out this season, starting with the Highlanders in Dunedin tonight, and earn that recognition again.

It was important, the co-captain said, because Waikato teams had so often followed a boom with a whimper and crowds had "dwindled" as a result. They will face new challenges this season but they shouldn't have much trouble holding the interest of their demanding supporters, or opposition teams.

They will be judged on results, as all teams are, but the Chiefs' unity, coaching nous and players they have retained from last season should ensure they are extremely competitive again.

Changes will be forced by the absence of two of their most influential players, midfielder Sonny Bill Williams and prop Sona Taumalolo.

No 8 Kane Thompson has also left.

But change should be welcomed. Coaches Dave Rennie, Wayne Smith and Tom Coventry know that what they did last year won't be enough to successfully defend their title.

Williams' departure plus injuries to Richard Kahui, Andrew Horrell and Robbie Robinson means a very different backline will take on the Highlanders and it will be fascinating to see how Bundee Aki and Tim Nanai-Williams, two small but extremely quick and elusive players, cope in the midfield.

Former Blues first-five Gareth Anscombe is at fullback.

Patrick Osborne, a Canterbury signing of Fijian heritage, is a wing with size and aggression but can be vulnerable on defence.

The backline which beat the Sharks in last August's final featured Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aaron Cruden, a midfield of SBW and Horrell, Nanai-Williams and Asaeli Tikoirotuma on the wings, and Robinson at fullback. Of those, only halfback Kerr-Barlow, first-five Cruden and Tikoirotuma retain their positions.

The forwards, written off before last season as lightweights, are more familiar, featuring a front row of Ben Afeaki, Hika Elliot and Pauliasi Manu, a second row of Brodie Retallick and Clarke and loose forwards Liam Messam, Sam Cane and Fritz Lee. Manu was signed from the Blues via a very short stint at the Melbourne Rebels, where he failed a medical due to a neck disc issue. Not much seems to be wrong with him.

Last season's victory was built around defence and, as if the Chiefs forwards didn't win enough plaudits in overturning prejudices, they were credited with being one of the keys behind the team's ability to smother opposition attacks.

Defence coach Smith, the former All Blacks assistant, said it was the pack's surprising excellence in the set pieces, particularly scrums, which gave their team a head start in one of the key factors on defence - line speed.

"Line speed is determined by several things," Smith said last year. "The most important thing is the set piece. To make sure you're not giving them easy ball, to make sure you're contesting and you can get on your toes and get forward."

Say what you like about the modern game's obsession with team building and bonding, Smith said the resulting unity was imperative for the will to stay connected and tackle, no matter how tired you were.

"You've got to want to tackle, no system will cover for guys that won't tackle. You've got to have strong will to not let anyone pass, which is all about the connections among your squad members. That's just as important to a coach as coaching the technique or skill of it."

The Chiefs won't have the element of surprise this season, but they are becoming rarer in modern rugby anyway - detailed video analysis of even pre-season matches ensures that.

Expectation? A fair bit of pressure came on the Chiefs to continue their form of the regular season in the play-offs last season and they did all right. Their semifinal win over finals experts the Crusaders in Hamilton was more comprehensive than the 20-17 scoreline suggests, and Rennie, Smith and Co seem to have a fair handle on the mental side of the game.

And while Rennie hasn't got the starting XV he would like on the park tonight, the opportunity is a great one for Aki, Nanai-Williams and Co to stamp their mark.

The forwards, led by Clarke and All Blacks Retallick, Messam and Cane, have the quality to pick up where they left off last year.

After a false start last weekend with only four of the Australian teams playing, the Super Rugby season proper starts this weekend.

For the Chiefs, it's time once again to earn some respect.

nzherald.co.nz will have live updates from 7.20pm.

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