Super Rugby: Depleted Chiefs rise to occasion

By Kris Shannon

Tackles like this one on Luke Whitelock typified the Chiefs defence in Christchurch. Photo / Getty Images
Tackles like this one on Luke Whitelock typified the Chiefs defence in Christchurch. Photo / Getty Images

The injuries continue to mount and the possession stats are still deficient, but the Chiefs keep on winning.

Starting their season at the home of their presumptive conference rivals, the two-time defending champions immediately illustrated their credentials to match the Crusaders with a hat-trick of Super Rugby titles.

It was far from a flawless night for Dave Rennie's team - there were too many banged-up bodies and too many errors at the set piece to earn that title - but it was an almost-perfect result.

The Chiefs became just the second side to emerge with victory from the new AMI Stadium, avenging their heavy defeat at the venue last season with an 18-10 win that was as resolute as it was satisfying.

After heading to Christchurch with a casualty list already in double-figures, the Chiefs overcame the late withdrawal of Tawera Kerr-Barlow and the subsequent substitutions of five players through injury.

And they did it while making twice as many tackles as their hosts, winning barely more than half of their lineouts and living off 33 per cent of possession.

The Chiefs thrived in spite of such circumstances last year - their time in possession and lineout success rate were the worst in the competition - and it appears the off-season has done little to alter their success in adversity.

"It just shows you how important mindset and attitude is," Rennie said. "We certainly had a pretty determined group heading down. Not everything went to plan, obviously. We didn't have a hell of a lot of ball in our hands, but we defended with amazing spirit.

"We had seven guys playing their first game for the Chiefs and it just highlights the character within this group."

Tackles like this one on Luke Whitelock typified the Chiefs defence in Christchurch. Photo / Getty Images
Tackles like this one on Luke Whitelock typified the Chiefs defence in Christchurch. Photo / Getty Images

One of those debutants, hooker Nathan Harris, ended up making his Chiefs bow as a blindside flanker, such was the injury crisis towards the end of the match.

No8 Kane Thompson was the first to fall, replaced after 18 minutes due to a groin injury. Fellow returning Chief Mils Muliaina departed shortly before halftime, with Rennie revealing the fullback's elbow strain "doesn't look good".

Replacement prop Ben Afeaki and Brodie Retallick were both removed after a sickening head clash and the pair will have to pass concussion protocols before being cleared to play. And halfback is an area of concern ahead of Saturday night's home fixture against the Highlanders, with Augustine Pulu (knee) joining Kerr-Barlow (foot) as doubtful.

With so many absent personnel it was perhaps unsurprising the Chiefs struggled at the set piece, barely holding on against a dominant Crusaders scrum and being hampered by the lineout difficulties that plagued them last year.

Rennie was confident those areas would be amended, pointing out their proficiency in the lineout in last week's preseason victory over the Blues, but it was really a minor quibble amid a major result.

"It's certainly an area where we need to be better because we need more pill," he said. "We can be a lot better but I'm really happy with the character shown."

- APNZ

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