Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Clarke return so timely for Chiefs

With the Chiefs' legs looking a little wobbly in losing to the Reds and Waratahs on successive weekends, the return of hard-working lock and co-captain Craig Clarke could hardly have come at a better time.

Clarke has missed the Chiefs' last five matches due to a concussion injury suffered in the team's loss to the Stormers in Cape Town on March 9.

His leadership and work ethic have been missed by Dave Rennie's men, particularly in the recent defeats in Hamilton and Sydney where uncharacteristic mistakes were made time and again by the defending champions.

Now available once more, Clarke said it was time for clear thinking rather than wholesale changes. He and his teammates recognised the amount of work ahead of them and were looking forward to the opportunity to right some wrongs against the Sharks at Waikato Stadium - a replay of last year's final - on Saturday night.

"It's pretty obvious that we're starting pretty poorly and that's a combination of [a lack of] intensity and accuracy - there have been too many mistakes which have let teams get a roll on early which is fairly tough to combat once you're down by a few," Clarke said.

"There's been a little bit of a disconnect between the forwards and the backs - when do the backs get the ball and when do the forwards take over, that sort of thing."

The Chiefs began the defence of their title well in accounting for the Highlanders and Cheetahs, and retained their attacking spark in the defeat by the Stormers. Since then, however, they have lacked a certain something. They weren't entirely convincing in their victories over the Kings, Highlanders and Blues, looked second best against the Reds and gave the Waratahs too much of a head start.

Remarkably, they overhauled the Sydneysiders at Allianz Stadium in the final minutes only to concede a soft seven-pointer when replacement front-rower John Ulugia sailed through a large defensive hole.

They are missing Sonny Bill Williams to provide thrust in the midfield and the constant changes at second-five and centre aren't helping. However, one of the biggest differences to last year was the lack of punch in the forwards.

Clarke said his pack had provided a decent enough platform - the set pieces were functioning okay - but the directness of last season was missing. "The lineout drive [is] not that good, and general go-forward around close [to the ruck is] not quite good enough."

Clarke confirmed that coaches Rennie, Wayne Smith and Tom Coventry had made their displeasure obvious at halftime in Sydney after the Chiefs went to the break 15-0 down.

"At halftime in the Waratahs game there was a fair bit of heat there from the coaches, which was warranted. The guys know if they don't perform they're going to get a serve. But this week the coaches have been really good in being realistic about the position we're in and the amount of work we're going to have to do to get out of it. We see that as a really good challenge. We have a really positive mindset to get into our work and get things going again."

Fullback Andrew Horrell (ankle) No8 Fritz Lee (broken finger) and Richard Kahui (hamstring) were casualties last weekend but Kahui was running in training today (Tues).

- NZ Herald

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