Rugby: Fair reason for Chiefs to feel cold feet

By Dylan Cleaver

Chiefs coach Ian Foster speaks to the team. Photo / Getty Images
Chiefs coach Ian Foster speaks to the team. Photo / Getty Images

If there's one New Zealand team with reason to fear the Super 15's conference system more than most, it's the Chiefs.

You can twist statistics to suit most arguments, but there's a fact concerning the Chiefs that does not lie - they have been ordinary against their fellow New Zealand franchises.

Since the competition kicked off in 1996 they have played 60 "derbies", losing close to 60 per cent of those fixtures against their 50 per cent overall loss record since 1996.

Their record in derbies would be significantly worse if not for their 10-5 record against the competition whipping boys, the Highlanders, to whom they have not lost since 2003.

Take the southerners out of the equation and the Chiefs have compiled a rather sorry-looking 16 wins from 45.

With matches within each conference taking on extra significance, this is a trend that has to change if the Chiefs want to take themselves seriously as title contenders.

The best place to start is by winning your home games, but Waikato Stadium has been anything but a fortress. The Chiefs have a losing home record against New Zealand teams.

The Chiefs took a long time to establish credibility as a franchise, playing through some dark years until John Mitchell instilled some fortitude when he took over for a season in 2001. Ian Foster built on that work and although their playoff appearances have been sporadic, they are no longer viewed as soft touches - unless you're the Crusaders.

It's hard to explain why they have struggled against their countrymen, an inferiority complex perhaps?

Back in the foundation days that might have been true, with the Chiefs' unholy alliance that saw North Harbour a Chiefs island in Blues territory. The geography wasn't the only problem, with loud suggestions that the sensibilities of the North Shore crew didn't mesh easily with the more earthy folk of the Waikato heartland.

One player who has never taken a backward step to anybody is Tana Umaga.

The belief he instilled in a Counties Manukau team far more used to losing than winning last year was almost visible.

Milton Haig tuned the young talent up superbly and Umaga, 37, was, more often than not, there to hold their hands on the field.

There is no getting around the fact that the ITM Cup is a more sedate, easy-paced environment than Super 15.

Whether Umaga, who is set to become the oldest player in Super rugby history this season, is capable of imposing his will on the game at this level will provide a fascinating subplot.

There's no doubt the Chiefs ooze talent through numbers nine to 15.

Mils Muliaina remains the world's premier custodian. His presence forces the outrageously talented Tim Nanai-Williams to seek his chances on the wing, where he will battle for places with All Blacks Sitiveni Sivivatu and Lelia Masaga.

Umaga, Richard Kahui, Jackson Willison, Dwayne Sweeney and wildcard Save Tokula are all capable of breaking the line in midfield while both five-eighths, Stephen Donald and Mike Delany, have played for the All Blacks. Brendon Leonard has the inside running at halfback, but Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Taniela Moa, who resurrected his career with a strong season at Bay of Plenty last year, will keep him honest.

Using the ball should not be a problem, winning enough of it is where the question lies.

With the likes of Liam Messam and Fritz Lee, they are well served for back-row talent, but the tight five will be the difference between the Chiefs making the playoffs or continuing their poor record against New Zealand teams and fading without a trace in the competition's toughest conference.

- NZ Herald

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