Gregor Paul on rugby

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: It's the Chiefs' title to lose

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The Chiefs have looked like potential champions for some time - from round two in fact, writes Gregor Paul. Photo / Getty Images
The Chiefs have looked like potential champions for some time - from round two in fact, writes Gregor Paul. Photo / Getty Images

It's bold prediction time - the Chiefs are going to be crowned Super Rugby champions. They might not win on Friday, but they are going to squeeze in as what the Australians would call the minor premiership winners and with home advantage in the knock-out rounds, they will, finally, win the title.

It actually might not even be that bold a prediction. The Chiefs have looked like potential champions for some time - from round two in fact. It's just that their dubious history and wrongly held perceptions about their tight five prevented everyone from seeing it.

The Chiefs have never been a solid bet in the past. They were for years and years a bit of a basket case, only making their first semifinal in 2004 and in 16 years they have made the last four only twice - their other appearance coming in 2009 when they pushed on to the final where they were obliterated by the Bulls.

It's never easy to suddenly believe in a team when they have endured so many years of chronic underperformance.

Trust is not easy to build in those circumstances.

But it's time to trust them: time to realise that their tight five, far from being a liability, are perhaps the core strength of the team. Toby Smith is a bruising loose-head now firmly on the All Blacks' radar and Ben Tameifuna magically holds on for 80 minutes these days and at 140kg, doesn't tend to be easy to shift in the scrums. Sona Taumalolo is everyone's favourite prop - he does the lot, including score tries with that incredible ability of his to burrow over from short range.

Mo Schwalger at hooker is a classic Dave Rennie find - tough, durable, capable, accurate and willing to empty himself while Hika Elliot is maturing into a consistently good performer. Craig Clarke does what a lock should do and Brodie Retallick is much the same but with a bit more oomph and panache.

A good group has been turned into an outstanding group by the coaching of Tom Coventry whose genius is to keep things simple - remind the forwards they are forwards and insist they only do things forwards do and go places forwards go.

The rest of the Chiefs side doesn't really need much explanation - they have a mobile, dynamic clutch of loose forwards, a terrific inside back combination a world class presence in their midfield and a back three that has been sharper and more effective than originally predicted.

Keeping the whole thing together is a superb coaching team who have fostered belief, discipline and modesty. That's a winning package and ask this: if not the Chiefs, then which team?

The Stormers are defensively brilliant but don't do enough with the ball. The Brumbies are good but there is no way they can win - not enough clout. The Bulls have to be respected - but they came to New Zealand recently and were put away by the Highlanders and Chiefs and that's the thing with them, they have never been the same team outside Pretoria.

The Hurricanes are magic with the ball but can a team with a filo party scrum really be crowned champions? The Reds and Sharks, should they make it, are stocking fillers - pleasurable treats to enliven the playoffs without seriously threatening to progress.

And that leaves the Crusaders: the strangely inconsistent Crusaders. Lethal one game and only a danger to themselves in the next. It is normally at this stage of the season that they shift gear - dig deep and find another element to their game. They have the personnel and pedigree but for some reason, it doesn't feel like this year they have that special ability to differentiate themselves.

The Chiefs are going to hang tough and do it.

- Herald on Sunday

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