Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby: Chiefs take the high road

Arizona Taumalolo of the Chiefs looks to break from a tackle by Richard Brown of the Force. Photo / Getty Images
Arizona Taumalolo of the Chiefs looks to break from a tackle by Richard Brown of the Force. Photo / Getty Images

Pop quiz time: Which New Zealand Super Rugby franchise has been the most successful in South Africa since 2009? Answer: The Chiefs.

They have a 63 per cent winning record in that period (five wins from eight matches), compared to the Blues (44 per cent), the Crusaders (42 per cent), the Hurricanes (33 per cent) and the Highlanders (29 per cent). To put the Crusaders' 12-match record into perspective, two of their seven losses were semifinals.

The first step towards the Chiefs maintaining their impressive recent record came overnight against the low-table Cheetahs on the high veldt at Bloemfontein.

It is the first of two matches - the next is back at sea level against the mid-table Sharks in Durban - which could give the Hamilton-based franchise valuable momentum at the top of the overall conference ladder heading into mid-season.

The Dave Rennie-coached Chiefs now get to test their travel fortunes against those of the Ian Foster-coached version of the previous eight seasons.

Foster's side even played a final on the high veldt at Pretoria's Loftus Versfeld, losing 61-17 to the Bulls in 2009.

It took Foster time to work out his best South African travel strategy. Before he carved out that five-wins-from-eight record (2009-11), he had two wins and a draw from 11 matches (2004-08).

"It took a few years for us to get the necessary experience," Foster, the new All Blacks assistant coach, says. "It wasn't hit and miss - we did a lot of travel research - but it was a constant battle working out the best ways to keep players fresh.

"We had to form a plan because our results in South Africa had become an obstacle to progress. In the end, we opted to work players harder early on [once they arrived]. It flushed the travel out of their systems and was a decent formula, even if wasn't completely popular with the players. We also designed a programme to eliminate domestic travel by using one base."

Former All Black halfback Brendon Leonard is in his sixth season with the Chiefs. His first round hamstring injury is expected to have repaired by the time the Chiefs return home for round 10. He will play club rugby next weekend.

Leonard says Foster's plan worked, so the Chiefs have employed a similar approach this season.

"We struggled [in South Africa] during my first couple of years [2007-08]. You have to believe you can travel and win which is not easy when combating the size and power of South African teams. You've also got to look forward to those special occasions in largely full stadiums [such as Ellis Park and Loftus Versfeld]. It is not something you experience often and always raises the hair on the back of your neck.

"I found it best having a base in Cape Town at sea level or Jo'burg at altitude.

"The last couple of years, we were based at Jo'burg. It alters your training with the lack of oxygen at altitude but a benefit is players are generally fitter when they return to sea level."

- Herald on Sunday

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