Daniel Richardson

Daniel Richardson is a Wellington-based sports journalist for NZME. News Service.

Rugby: Chiefs finding the right balance

Aaron Cruden (L), Richard Kahui and Jackson Willison. Photo / Getty Images.
Aaron Cruden (L), Richard Kahui and Jackson Willison. Photo / Getty Images.

There's an argument for loading your squad with big-name recruits but the Chiefs have proven quality coaching and a strong team culture is more important in this year's Super Rugby.

While they added All Blacks Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams in the off-season, most of the mail about the Chiefs was focused on the fact they lost 16 members of the 2011 squad.

Many of their new additions were from the New Zealand under-20s squad or players who had shown some spark in the national provincial championship.

Under first-year coach Dave Rennie, forwards maestro Tom Coventry and defensive guru Wayne Smith, the Waikato-based franchise have won their past five games, lead the New Zealand conference and sit second overall.

They've left these shores for an African safari and meet the entertaining Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Sunday morning (3.05am NZT) after they toppled the Force 20-12 in Perth last weekend.

Chiefs centre Richard Kahui, who has also spent time on the wing this season, said the bond in the group was one of the key factors in their success this year.

"We've got a great spirit here and I was fortunate enough to have a few words in the changing shed the other day and we've got a really good group of men here and we've got a good chance to do something really great," he said of the 2012 campaign.

"I think the more we win, the more we grow our culture and the more we add to our Chiefs mana. I think at the moment we are doing a bloody good job and do our province proud and ourselves proud.

"Off the field the guys get on really well. We are all a really good group of mates and there are no factions or mini-groups. We really are just one big family and it's bloody good to be a part of. While we lost a massive amount of players last year that made up the Chiefs, I think we've got a brand new set of guys who have taken the mantra on and know the values and what the Chiefs' mana is all about and are representing it everyday."

The Hurricanes, who have also surpassed pre-season expectations, are building a similar mentality. The Hurricanes players rave about the team culture created under second-year head coach Mark Hammett and their four-win three-loss record reflects improvements the squad has made.

The situation is quite different a little further up State Highway 1. The Blues are a team in crisis and look like they don't care about results.

They recruited big names in the form of All Blacks Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu but have lost five of their opening six games.

Smith, who has proved a sound addition to the Chiefs coaching unit after stepping down from his role with the All Blacks following last year's World Cup triumph, said they kept a close watch on all their players.

"I think player management's really important today," he said. "You've got to treat players as individuals. I know people say, 'there's no I in team', but there is in 'win' and if you're going to win you've got to treat every individual differently and make sure they're being managed properly and not fatigued on the weekend.

"There are a hell of a lot of challenges today I think in this environment and particularly with the length of the season and the number of games being played. So it's not just the young guys it's the whole squad that you've got keep an eye on."

After their battle in Bloemfontein, the Chiefs meet the Sharks in Durban before travelling back to New Zealand where they host the Hurricanes in Hamilton on April 28.

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