Gregor Paul 's Opinion

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Chiefs won't have luxury of surprise

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It's funny, or maybe not so, that in 2012 the Chiefs played all the rugby, looked like champions early, ended up champions late and here we are in 2013 with the Crusaders rated a better bet to win the title despite the fact they have been patchy since 2009.

That's the power of a dynasty and a gauge for the Chiefs at just how much work they have to do to build one. It's a phenomenally tough business building a reputation for consistent excellence and there aren't any short-cuts.

The Crusaders, despite their recent relative under-performance are still the only side in the competition that is automatically granted favourite or near favourite status. Winning seven titles and making the final on three other occasions will do that.

The Chiefs made all the running last year, even comprehensively beat the Crusaders in the semi-final, but yet it is clear the wider market doesn't feel the same level of confidence in the defending champions.

And why should they? The Reds showed in 2010 that it is possible to win a title one year and then pretty much disappear the next. The Blues did it in 2003 - rose from nowhere only to collapse just as quickly.

The Chiefs don't feel like a side that have flown too close to the sun and will soon melt, but nor do they necessarily give the vibe of being guaranteed play-off material in 2013.

Technically and tactically the Chiefs will no doubt be once again excellent. Forwards coach Tom Coventry knows how to divest big lugs of their ambition to be ballerinas and revel in the basic chores. Wayne Smith gets into the fine detail of defending - both individually and collectively - and has this canny art of persuading players to get off the ground and make the next hit.

Dave Rennie's calm, measured approach will see the game-plan retain its strong foundations and evolve just enough to keep opponents guessing. So far so good but the problems may be dealing with the psychological pressure of being champions and simply not having the personnel to win the key battles in the key games.

As champions, the Chiefs will be in everyone's sights which means that their opponents will more often than not find an extra 10-20 percent. Nor will the Chiefs have the luxury of surprise as they did last year: everyone will see them coming.

Coping with that can be tough: every game is a cup final almost, every game is an 80-minute battle to subdue and then dismantle even the lowest ranked opponents. There is no easy ride and some of the younger and less experienced Chiefs may find it hard to pick themselves up to their mental peak week after week.

But more than anything, the absence of Sonny Bill Williams will hurt. His influence was huge, as was that of prop Sona Taumalolo while Kane Thompson was vastly under-rated at No 8.

Perhaps the hardest part of building a dynasty is having a pipeline of talent and at this juncture, we just don't know whether the Chiefs have unearthed the replacements they are so surely going to need.


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- Herald on Sunday

Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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