Rugby: Margin call for Chiefs

By Kris Shannon

Team almost untouchable in tight games now desperate to regain killer instinct

Mahonri Schwalger remains a chance to wear the No2 jersey.
Mahonri Schwalger remains a chance to wear the No2 jersey.

Changes will be few when the Chiefs travel to tackle the Brumbies this weekend, but there is one aspect the champs would ideally alter.

Having made just one injury-enforced switch in his team's final two games, Dave Rennie indicated he would select largely the same side for Saturday night's qualifier in Canberra, with the only question mark surrounding Mahonri Schwalger.

The veteran hooker dislocated his shoulder in last weekend's win over the Blues but he was on the plane yesterday and remains a chance to take the No2 jersey.

If their personnel look largely unchanged, the Chiefs will be desperate to reverse a trend that threatened to sink their title defence. While they were almost untouchable in tight games in his first two years, this season has seen them much more fallible when margins became fine.

Through the 2012-13 campaigns, including the playoffs, the Chiefs were an exceptional 14-5 in games decided by seven points or less, closing narrow leads to come from behind and eke out vital wins.

This year, though, that record dropped to 3-3. The fall could be a case of regression to the mean - with such a successful mark in close contests unsustainable - or it could indicate a loss in lustre that left opposing teams believing they were never dead when facing the Chiefs.

Whatever the reason, Rennie wants to see a change, and he's hopeful the win they ground out against the Blues last weekend will mean good things for the post-season.

"What we've done well in the last couple of years is winning a lot of those tight games," the coach said. "We've lost a lot of those this year.

"The Blues was an arm wrestle and probably could've gone either way. But to win against a good side was important going into the playoffs.

"We've been in sudden death for a couple of weeks, so it's nothing new for us."

The same could be said of the playoffs as a whole. The Chiefs and the Crusaders are the only two of this year's six playoff sides who also featured in the previous two finals series, with the two-time champions having enjoyed an extra couple of games to the team they vanquished in consecutive semifinals.

"We've got a fair bit of experience in these situations, and we've got a team that's determined to stay in the race," Rennie said. "But [the Brumbies] are a good side ... and everyone tells us they're tough to beat [at home]."

A settled side will certainly aid the Chiefs' chances of upsetting the naysayers, with hooker the only obvious selection issue. If Schwalger can't play, Nathan Harris is set to step into the starting team, while the match is a week too soon for injured second five Charlie Ngatai.

His absence will see Bundee Aki again join Tim Nanai-Williams in midfield, with the back three of Tom Marshall, Asaeli Tikoirotuma and James Lowe likely to retain their places. Sam Cane is still on the sidelines, leaving the loose forward trio of Liam Squire, Tanerau Latimer and Liam Messam unchanged. Stability should also prevail in the tight five.

Close contests

Chiefs' record in close contests (decided by seven points or less)
2012: 8-3
2013: 6-2
2014: 3-3


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