Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Chiefs buzzing in time for playoffs - Cruden

Putting fun back into their game has given champions self-belief for Brumbies clash.

Chiefs No 8 Liam Squire charges against the Blues at Eden Park - but it was the champions'  defensive display that was key to their victory. Photo / Getty Images
Chiefs No 8 Liam Squire charges against the Blues at Eden Park - but it was the champions' defensive display that was key to their victory. Photo / Getty Images

Aaron Cruden, his voice all but gone after shouting instructions to the Chiefs throughout their gritty victory over the Blues in the wet and wild conditions at Eden Park, says bringing back the enjoyment factor at the end of a difficult season has put his team in with a chance of defending their title.

After losing in successive weeks to the Hurricanes, Waratahs and Highlanders, the former a 45-8 humiliation in Wellington, few outside the franchise believed they would make the playoffs. But a renaissance sparked by their win over the Hurricanes in Hamilton and continued in Friday's 11-8 armwrestle over the Blues, along with a bit of luck, has seen them sneak into fifth spot.

They will attempt to overturn their round-robin defeat to the Brumbies in Canberra when they return for their qualifier match on Saturday night and their trip will be fuelled by a heightened sense of self-belief and fun. They have an opportunity to be together for another week at least, and their defensive effort against a tactically naive Blues showed how much that means to them.

"A lot of people outside our group have probably doubted us for most of the year," Cruden said. "At times it's probably been vindicated, I guess, the fact that we haven't performed well. But the belief through the whole season in the squad has been really good. We thought if we just keep doing what we're doing and really get the enjoyment factor back into it then we'd be able to make a push through the finals.

"The last few weeks have been really good. The boys have brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm towards training and around the base and I think you can see that on the field."

Co-captain Liam Messam, one of the Chiefs' heroes with his intercept try and, with Tanerau Latimer, the best defender on the park with 19 tackles, put it more bluntly.

"We got embarrassed a couple of times this year but that only made us stronger," Messam said.

Rugby trips to Canberra are rarely easy, given as they are preceded by a 280km bus journey from Sydney, but the Chiefs will back themselves to create problems for the fourth-placed Brumbies, particularly up front. In lock Brodie Retallick they have a man capable of hurting the Brumbies' lineout, not to mention their close defenders, and in Messam, Latimer, Cruden and halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow they have quality players who can set the right agenda in a sudden-death match.

That ruthlessness was evident at Eden Park where the Chiefs tackled their hearts out, conceding only a late George Moala try.

"In terms of our defence, it took a massive stride in the right direction last week and again this week," Cruden said. "It comes down to the effort and attitude of the guys and it was evident to see tonight that it was really there. It was do or die for us.

"We've probably had that [finals] mentality for the last two weeks so it's created a bit of an edge around training.

"It's a new group here at the Chiefs this year, I know some of the new guys, they're really excited by the challenge. It's the first taste of finals footy for a lot of them. I think the experienced guys will get around them and make sure they're aware of what it takes to go out there and push through."


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