The Chiefs, amongst the most notoriously slow starters in Super Rugby, are determined to shed the tag that they ‘sleep-walk’ into the early rounds of the tournament and then are left with too much ground to make up.
Although the Hamilton-based franchise have come to within striking distance of the play-offs in recent years, it was a string of defeats in the early rounds that inevitably left them short of some valuable points on the standings.
Last year the Chiefs lost three of their first five games and finished seventh on the standings, in 2007 they suffered four defeats and a draw in the first five games and finished sixth, in 2006 if was four defeats in six games (finished seventh) and 2005 saw them losing four of their first five games (finished sixth).
In fact in 2007 they were just two points outside a top-four finish (when the Bulls, Crusaders and Blues all had 42 points and the Chiefs 40), after having won their last five matches on the trot. And in 2006 their were also just two points off the play-off pace – when the Bulls (38 points) beat the Sharks and Brumbies on points difference to reach the semifinals.
In 2005 and 2008 those margins were six and seven points respectively – again just a couple of early season losses that cost them.
Now, less that a fortnight away from their first Super 14 pre-season match, forwards coach Craig Stevenson feels they won’t be underdone this year.
In a bid to address their infamously slow starts and make up for a lot of inexperience and new faces in the tight five, the Chiefs have changed their pre-season training emphasis.
For the first time the forwards did some set-piece work and all of the players some ball-skill work in the three weeks before their festive season break. This time is normally totally the sole preserve of the fitness trainers as well as being used for team bonding.
That has carried on in the January heat this week as the squad returned from their holidays.
The first pre-season game will be against the Blues in Pukekohe on Saturday, January 17, followed by a second game against the Highlanders in Rotorua on Friday, January 23.
There will then be a two-week break before the final pre-season game against the Hurricanes in Gisborne and the Chiefs will kick off their season on Saturday, February 14, away to the defending champion Crusaders in Christchurch.
Just four tight forwards Ben May, Aled de Malmanche, Kevin O’Neill and Toby Lynn remain from last season and although Nathan White is on the comeback from his back problems and in the wider training group, that makes for a raw-looking group overall.
“We think we’ve got players who haven’t got a lot of experience but have shown at the Air New Zealand Cup level that they don’t give up,” Stevenson told the Waikato Times.
“They’ve got a lot of tenacity and they will give everything for the Chiefs jersey and that’s why they’ve been picked,” he added.
“What we’re wanting to achieve with the players who are playing in the first two games against the Blues and the Highlanders is to give them as much information, game plans and technical advice as we can.
“It’s so we don’t go in there underdone and those guys have got the opportunity to perform, albeit being early.
“Of course we’ll come out of those games with things to work on but we don’t want to leave too much to do in the last two weeks, cramming it in as we come into the start of the season.”
Stevenson said they were well in advance of previous seasons and pleased with the progress made.
“We certainly won’t show all of our hand in terms of what we are going to do but with some of the non-negotiables we’ll be doing some stuff around our defence, around our attack and around our set piece that we’re working on in these two weeks as well as the three weeks prior to Christmas,” he told the Waikato Times.
“We make no bones about the fact we want to start the season on a real positive note and don’t want to take three or four games to get into it.
“We want to make sure that we put the pressure on ourselves now and give ourselves the opportunity to be able to put ourselves in the race from day one.”
All players returned from their holiday break in good shape, all meeting their personal targets in terms of weight and body fat content.
The All Blacks are returning to training this week and next at various levels, with all but Stephen Donald involved in some form of training this week.
“With them coming into the odd training it’s certainly lifting the intensity and also the excitement and competition.
“So we’re looking forward to being able to have a couple of weeks leading into that first [competition] game with them all back in full training,” Stevenson said.Tweet