Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Skill and speed taking Chiefs to top

The Chiefs' ability with ball in hand has separated them from the chasing pack. Photo / Getty
The Chiefs' ability with ball in hand has separated them from the chasing pack. Photo / Getty

Their first two titles were built on physical domination but, if the Chiefs are to snare a third, they will do so on the back of their skill and speed which they have taken to extraordinary levels this year.

The Super Rugby leaders are averaging almost six tries a game and playing a brand of football that owes everything to the hours they have spent refining their passing and basic handling.

Against the Blues in Hamilton on Friday night, the Chiefs, while not at their best for prolonged periods, were still able to piece together stunning passages of attack that were launched by some outrageously good offloading, handling and support running.

Where the Chiefs have got to in terms of their skill level was best illustrated by the contribution of Brodie Retallick.

When the giant lock first came into the squad, he was exclusively a battering machine - a thump-up-the-guts sort of player whose work ethic and engine were his key features.

Now he's added subtlety and intricacy to his play, throwing, as he did against the Blues, one supremely clever offload over the top of a tackler that portrayed not only his awareness but his soft hands.

Retallick has become an even better player as a consequence of this skill development, and the same could be said of the likes of Sam Cane and Hika Elliot.

Being able to make an unlikely pass stick has been the secret to the Chiefs' success so far and head coach Dave Rennie is keen to acknowledge the role assistant Andrew Strawbridge has played.

"We won a title on the back of being pretty brutal in 2012 and also played a lot of footy," said Rennie. "We have a smaller team than we had then and we have a lot less experience.

"I look at our skillset and Straws [Strawbridge] is a bit unheralded with us. It's his fifth season and the skill-set stuff is his portfolio. He does a lot of work on our handling, creative passing, offloading and footwork. That's been huge, as it has allowed us to get behind defences and apply pressure. We have been pretty clinical."

With a week off, the Chiefs intend to rest for some of it before regrouping for a three-game burst that will see them take on the Hurricanes, Sharks and Highlanders before another bye.

"We knew going in that the Australasian side of the draw was going to be tough," said Rennie. "We know that one pool doesn't have to play a Kiwi side ... which would be pretty cool, wouldn't it?

"But it is what it is and we have had two derbies now and won both so it's pleasing when you get points and the other team doesn't.

"But we know that the Hurricanes have half an All Black side down there so there is no easy game. We will rest well and come back for it."

- Herald on Sunday

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