Rugby: Can the Chiefs maintain momentum?

By Kris Shannon

Beginning this Friday in Dunedin, the Chiefs face the three sides challenging them at the head of the New Zealand conference. Photo / Getty Images
Beginning this Friday in Dunedin, the Chiefs face the three sides challenging them at the head of the New Zealand conference. Photo / Getty Images

The final three matches in the Chiefs' Super 15 season should double as an intriguing experiment on the impact of the inaugural international break.

At first glance it would appear the Chiefs, sitting atop the standings after winning 11 of 13 games, have the most to lose from the hiatus.

Momentum may have disappeared and combinations could have collected rust as the majority of their players cooled their heels on the sidelines for three weeks.

But it's just as possible the mid-season intermission arrived at an ideal time for the table-toppers.

The Chiefs stumbled their way to a wild win over the bumbling Blues before the break as their defence, the fourth best in the competition, allowed 34 points to a team that has mustered only two victories all season.

And the cracks in that particular unit began to appear two games earlier when the Chiefs suffered their first loss since round one, conceding a season-high 42 points to a Reds side that had been averaging just 18.3 per game.

So did the respite provide a welcome rest for some aching bodies before the final surge, or will stoppage in play cause the rugby-starved Chiefs to relinquish their grip on the top spot?

Halfback Brendon Leonard found the disruption, the first since the inception of Super Rugby in 1996, a peculiar proposition but thought any potential influence on future performances would be negligible.

"It's a bit different but we knew it was coming so we planned pretty well for it," he said. "Hopefully it won't hurt our momentum too much - we'll keep building it and keep trying to get better."

Leonard aligned himself with the idea the break was beneficial in its timing, giving the weary Chiefs time to repair the punctures that began to appear in the game.

"We obviously had a lot of areas to improve on after the Blues game. The coaches weren't too happy with us so we trained pretty hard last week.

"We were also able to give guys who have had a lot of game time a decent rest and guys like myself, who haven't had as much game time, were able to get some with the North-South game and club football."

Of course, not every player in the Chiefs' camp was able to put the feet up. The Chiefs' preeminence was reflected in the All Blacks' series against Ireland, with seven players involved in some capacity in the clean sweep.

Sonny Bill Williams was ever-present the three victories, Brodie Retallick, Aaron Cruden, Sam Cane and Liam Messam all earned starts, while Hika Elliot and Ben Tameifuna provided cover.

With Cruden's achilles appearing the only injury worry, Leonard felt the returning bunch would inject some impetus in the Chiefs' push for the playoffs.

"Hopefully they'll be raring to put the Chiefs jersey on again. They played extremely well the last three weeks so it was good to see.

"Hopefully they can bring back some experience and what they learned, and they're as hungry as what they were before they went away."

Beginning this Friday in Dunedin, the Chiefs (58 points) face the three sides challenging them at the head of the New Zealand conference - the Highlanders (44), Crusaders (51) and Hurricanes (45).

According to Leonard, the defining stretch will be perfect preparation as the Chiefs seek to switch from Super Rugby's loveable losers into maiden victors.

"We've got three very tough playoff-type games which could potentially be very important. We've got to make sure we do everything right between here and the end of the season."

- APNZ

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