Rugby: Chiefs defy stats odds to stay top

By Campbell Burnes

Defending champions lead NZ conference despite having to scrap for wins and draw.

Gareth Anscombe of the Chiefs. Photo / Getty Images
Gareth Anscombe of the Chiefs. Photo / Getty Images

The defending Super Rugby champion Chiefs are defying injuries, set-piece woes, savvy opponents and statistics to remain in pole position in the New Zealand conference.

In fact, after the Chiefs' get-out-of-jail effort to draw 34-all with the Bulls in Pretoria on Sunday, they seem to be relying a lot on what coach Dave Rennie calls their "spark plugs" off the bench, namely Gareth Anscombe, Tim Nanai-Williams and Augustine Pulu. All three provided impetus with their penetrative running, and Anscombe himself, just minutes after scoring a scorching try, landed a sideline conversion to tie the match.

The Chiefs are the best metre-eaters in the competition, having made more than 511m in five matches, just ahead of the Waratahs and Hurricanes. They also make 89 per cent of their tackles, which helps explain the fact they have conceded just 101 points, the second best in Super Rugby behind the Waratahs, according to the Herald Rugby Stats Centre.

The good
9.73 - Gareth Anscombe's average metre again
11 - Offloads by Aaron Cruden and Tawera Kerr-Barlow
50 - Carries by Tim Nanai-Williams

The bad
2 - Errors by Cruden and Liam Messam which led to Bjorn Basson's try
8 - Penalties conceded by Ben Tameifuna in 2014
70 - Chiefs' lineout percent the worst in the comp

But, conversely, they have won a paltry 70 per cent of their lineouts, with both hookers Rhys Marshall and Mahonri Schwalger struggling to hit their jumpers. The Bulls knew these numbers at the weekend, and duly contested the Chiefs' lineout while also employing driving mauls off that set-piece. One of those drives led to a penalty try against the Chiefs. Another saw Bulls flanker Deon Stegmann dive over.

There is a case for Anscombe to assume the goalkicking role fulltime if he can crack the starting XV, but Mils Muliaina showed most of his old class from the back with a super try in Pretoria and Aaron Cruden is immovable, having played every minute thus far, in the No10 jersey. Cruden's allround play is hard to fault, but he does strike the ball at only 71 per cent off the tee. The All Black pivot leads the way with offloads (11).

Not many Chiefs feature in the top 25 statistical categories, though that is as much down to the constant tweaking of the line-up due to a high injury toll or last week when Rennie wielded the axe. Somewhat surprisingly, Nanai-Williams leads the carries for the Chiefs, with 50, and his output off the pine will give Rennie serious thought about promoting him. He leads the individual metres gained (268), just ahead of Asaeli Tikoirotuma (267) and Anscombe. Tikoirotuma had 15 carries against the Bulls. In the penalties conceded category, Ben Tameifuna leads the way with eight.

The good news is that the Chiefs have not yet come close to really hitting their straps over the full 80 minutes in 2014, and yet their record stands at 3-1-1. It could have been worse - they would have lost to the Crusaders on opening night, had Tyler Bleyendaal brought his kicking boots, scraped past the Highlanders and finally put away the Stormers before the Force pushed them round in Perth and the Bulls all but did them. It is a good side that can win, mostly, without playing their best footy.

Chiefs' next three games

- NZ Herald

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