Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Chiefs, Blues battle on

Leading New Zealand sides the Chiefs and Blues have run into a bit of a Super 15 lull.

They are winning but those victories have been battling rather than sparkling results.

The Chiefs are trying to find the spark of enthusiasm which took them to their title triumph last season while the Blues are looking to lift the level of their attacking game.

Neither task is a major but more fine-tuning from sides who are understanding the stamina and style needed to stay in the hunt in the next phase before the series halts for its June recess.

The Chiefs play the Force, Hurricanes and Crusaders and then have a bye while the Blues meet the Rebels, Crusaders, Brumbies and Highlanders before their break.

Chiefs assistant Wayne Smith thinks his side may be struggling with a hangover from last season's success coupled with the absence of the fanatical enthusiasm and skill of Sonny Bill Williams.

"That fanaticism spread through the squad and lifted our on-field and off-field preparation," Smith told the Rugby Site.

"One year on and we have to acknowledge that all the ideas are not so exciting any more."

The thrill of being a new side and riding the wave of underdog status has disappeared. Smith wondered whether that was the same sort of issue which affected the Reds last year.

Selection changes had been made despite a long injury list, to try to rekindle some of the missing spark. Players needed to be kept on edge and to believe they would be picked if they played strongly.

Smith accepted the coaching staff also needed to evaluate their contributions. Since the Chiefs had their first bye they had been unable to rekindle their intensity.

"We can't afford that to happen a second time, so the coaches need to look at how to lift the team after the final bye," said Smith.

The Chiefs had plateaued but would come again. It was important not to panic because the Chiefs would lift again.

"The team has character and a sense of history so will do everything possible to raise our performance and earn back the respect we may have lost over recent weeks," he said.

Last year no one outside the group expected the Chiefs to do better than 10th but the staff became obsessed with winning the competition.

The Blues would love to emulate that result in their first season under new coach Sir John Kirwan.

They are holding strong in second place in the NZ conference behind the Chiefs but are being tailed hard by the Crusaders.

They have won three out of their last four games with a solitary point away defeat to the Reds, but there have been some battles.

Kirwan said they needed to maintain their consistency and the determination they showed in defence but had to tighten their set piece and deliver a little more creativity.

• The injured Jackson Willison and Keven Mealamu are likely to be spelled for the Blues on Saturday against the Rebels while hardworking flanker Luke Braid may also get a rest.

- NZ Herald

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