The New Zealanders

 

The Chiefs.

They might not win trophies every year, but the Chiefs are guaranteed to be one of the most exciting teams to watch when they play the game of rugby. It does not matter who the opposition are, the Chiefs will give them a run for their money, and often run them off their feet too. In the five years that Dave Rennie was in charge, the Chiefs won the trophy in 2012 and 2013, and made the playoffs every year.

Dave Rennie has moved on. After five years with the Chiefs, he has opted to go and coach the Glasgow Warriors, making room for Colin Cooper to take over the reins of the Hamilton-based franchise.

Cooper is no rookie coach. He has stints with the New Zealand U/21s, as an assistant at the Crusaders. He had seven years with the Hurricanes, where he took them to two semi-finals in his first three years in charge, and then to the final in 2006. He followed that with time at the Junior All Blacks, and then with the Maori All Blacks. He has the pedigree to continue where Rennie left off.

Cooper has the help of former Bath head coach Tabai Matson as his assistant. Matson is another experienced coach with Super Rugby experience from his time as an assistant at the Crusaders.

In 2017 the Chiefs were contributors to a couple of epic games of rugby, none more so than the two against the South African Stormers. The two teams met in the sixth round of the competition when both were still unbeaten, and the game produced a superb display of running, attacking rugby. The game is especially memorable for two of the best tries of the entire year. One featured the elusive running skills of Damian McKenzie cutting the Stormers defences into shreds, and the other featured a brilliant off-the-floor reverse pass by Dillyn Leyds of the Stormers. The Stormers won this game.

The return match, a quarterfinal at the end of the season, was another epic game of rugby, a different flavour of the game to the first, this time it was two teams grinding it out in typical finals rugby style, an enthralling game, with the Chiefs edging the Stormers 17 – 11 in the end.

Fixtures:

The Chiefs have a tough schedule in 2017, with eight of their league fixtures being played away from home and four of those are outside New Zealand.

They kick off with away matches against the Crusaders and Blues before they have a bye in the third week. They are at home against the Bulls before heading to Tokyo to take on the Sunwolves.

After that, they host the Highlanders and Blues on successive weekends before facing the Hurricanes away. Then they are off to Brisbane against the Reds before another bye in Round 11. Next up is the Jaguares at home.

They are back on the road when they head to South Africa where they face tricky assignments against the Stormers and Sharks in Cape Town and Durban.

Their season wraps with the Waratahs in Sydney before taking on the Crusaders away from home and their final match at home against the Highlanders.

Squad:

The departure of Aaron Cruden triggers the move everyone is waiting for. Damian McKenzie is set to make the shift from full-back to fly-half, the position where many believe he is a wonderful prospect; the man to understudy Beauden Barrett at the national level. McKenzie is one of rugby’s best attacking players, especially as a counter attacker, he dangerous every time he gets the ball, and a genius at turning the slimmest of chances into massive attack.

At flyhalf he will be expected to be a little less impulsive and more disciplined, yet it will still be his primary task to give this team forward momentum. He has to start thinking as a playmaker rather than simply as an independent soul.

The Chiefs have lost some influential players in the off-season. Aaron Cruden is one of those players, but they have also lost other big names, such as Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Hika Elliot, Tom Sanders, Michael Leitch, Finlay Christie, Stephen Donald and James Lowe.

There have been no really big name recruits, save perhaps for Damian’s brother Marty McKenzie, who returns from a stint with the Crusaders where he was often a bench-warmer. Whilst he does not seem to have the same explosive skills of his brother, he is a steady fullback and can play at 10 too.

It will be interesting to watch Canadian international, Tyler Ardron, play Super Rugby. One of his strengths is his versatility. He can play on the blindside and at number eight, and he can also pack down at lock. How will he handle the step up to Super Rugby?

Prospects:

The Chiefs have a tough fixture list, a new coach, and a number of stalwarts who have left the squad. This suggests that 2018 will be a season for re-building rather than continuing where they left off in 2017.

I do believe that they will continue their tradition of being the most counter-attacking team in Super Rugby, with more offloads and passes than anyone else.

Once again, they will be contenders for a playoff slot.