New Zealand rugby’s centre of excellence has shifted from Christchurch to Hamilton and it’s the respective contributions of four key players that has swung the balance, writes Gregor Paul

For Super Rugby's first and second generation of followers, it's been a tough mental shift to make these past two years; to understand that rugby is now an 80-minute contest and at the end, the Chiefs usually win.

For more than a decade, the game here was entirely different; at the end of 80 minutes, the Crusaders won and they won because they were smarter, fitter, better organised, ahead of their competition and in possession of a culture that bound them tightly in those darkest hours.

The Chiefs for most of this same period were almost guaranteed to chronically underachieve. Last weekend confirmed that the rugby world has indeed spun on its axis. Having won consecutive titles, the Chiefs achieved something almost as critical-they won in Christchurch.

Since 2012, the rivalry between the Chiefs and Crusaders has intensified - not through bad blood but through a mutual recognition they are vying for national and probably world supremacy in provincial rugby.


They have played seven times, the Chiefs winning five of those (three in Hamilton, one in Napier and now one in Christchurch) - including two semifinals-but last Friday was the first occasion they have gone into the lair and slayed the dragon, so to speak. That's a big mental hurdle to clear and the Chiefs are surely now universally considered to be the country's benchmark? The Chiefs are, as much as they don't like the term, the new Crusaders.

The transformation has been driven by multiple factors but there is one that has been critical. Of all the theories espoused by coaches, one holds universally true across all levels of the game; a team has more chance of winning if their best players deliver a big performance. All Black coach Steve Hansen is adamant about this, stretching it further to say that big performances from big players are even more important in the biggest games.

The Chiefs once again proved why they are the defending champions, winning over the Highlanders 21-19.

The Chiefs, on the surface, appear to contradict this, by winning consecutive titles with what they call their "good buggers" mantra, relying on the attitude and culture of a solid group of players who consistently deliver sums that are in excess of their collective parts. It's not quite true, though.

The Chiefs aren't laden with stars but do have two world-class operators in Liam Messam and Aaron Cruden, who are serving as co-captains this campaign. The extent of their influence is phenomenal without being fully appreciated. The Chiefs wouldn't have transformed themselves from being the perennial mid-table what - might have - been story to champions had it not been for Messam and Cruden.

They are the two rocks on which the Chiefs' success has been built; selection has been fluid in all positions except theirs.

Messam is Super Rugby's ultimate iron horse. He has played more Super Rugby than any other player in the past three years. In the past two, he has clocked up in excess of 2700 minutes on the field in 34 appearances.

Cruden has outdone Messam in the past two seasons, the first five having played more than 2800 minutes in all 36 games. In Messam and Cruden, the Chiefs have had their two key decision-makers and leaders on the field for almost every minute of their last two campaigns.

When they have needed to go forward, it has come from Messam. Last year in particular, he was inspirational in the way he would break free or pull off a possession changing defensive hit to turn the game in an instant.

Cruden's biggest impact comes with his running and offloading game, both of which are underpinned by solid tactical direction. Again the Chiefs are a little deceptive; there is this illusory sense that they are in constant flux in terms of personnel, that much of their success has been down to judicious use of their playing resource to prevent fatigue being a factor.

Partly that's right but locked in each week are Messam and Cruden. Consistency of selection has been at the core of their success, rotation at the periphery. In a competition where excessive workload is a constant theme, the Chiefs have been smart in the way they have handled Messam and Cruden. Rather than ask them to sit out the odd game - Messam's absences have been injury related - they have reduced their training load. Last year, partly also due to a stiff knee, Cruden often didn't train with the team until late in the week.

"They are the leaders in our team," says assistant coach Tom Coventry. "Success comes from the consistency from our leaders and we want them playing as much as they can. We recognise that we need to have a strategy around managing them and their workloads.

"But there are different ways of doing that. If you asked any player would they rather train or play, they will say play, so there are ways of handling them because they are our true warriors and we need them out there as much as possible."

In comparison, the two biggest names at the Crusaders, Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter, have played a combined 2,700 minutes in the last two campaigns.

Last year, McCaw's contribution to the Crusaders was 28 minutes after his sabbatical, with Carter delivering 1022 minutes in 14 appearances. In 2012, McCaw played 10 games for 656 minutes and Carter 14 for 992. This year, McCaw is likely to miss at least eight weeks with a broken thumb and Carter is on a sabbatical until June.

McCaw and Carter are able to influence culture and ethos off the field, but to be truly effective, they have needed to be on it way more than they have. Injury has been a huge factor. McCaw, who played the opening game of the campaign this year, hadn't done so since 2009. He missed two-thirds of the 2011 campaign with his broken foot, half of 2012 recovering from more surgery on the broken foot that wasn't quite fixed in 2011 and was on sabbatical last year, which is why he only played 29 minutes in total.

Carter's contribution has been more substantial, but again, he was late into action in 2012 following surgery on his groin after ripping it at the World Cup and he missed five consecutive games in the first half of last year - a period where the Crusaders lost to the Sharks and Force and seriously damaged their chances of winning the New Zealand Conference.

The Crusaders, to be frank, haven't had good value out of either McCaw or Carter since the last World Cup. The All Blacks have - the Crusaders haven't and nor has the latter been able to get quite enough out of Kieran Read. Read managed 828 minutes in 12 appearances last year and 13 appearances and 897 minutes in 2012.

All three of McCaw, Carter and Read can't match the total game time of Messam and Cruden over the past two years and that is the essence of this transition of power right there.