The Ian Foster era of Chiefs rugby is best represented by their former five-eighth Stephen Donald. The polarizing five-eighth was beloved in the Waikato, but he was known throughout the country for his glaring lack of consistency. One day he'd play like the best pivot in the country, the next he'd commit some blunders and be blamed for the loss. Ask most kiwis and they'll tell you they cringed when they saw him take the field in that World Cup Final.
That's how the Chiefs have been in recent years: very inconsistent, following great wins with shocking losses.
Ian Foster has now left the Chiefs to join Steve Hansen in the All Blacks coaching team. His replacement is Dave Rennie, the former coach of the always dominant New Zealand Under-20 team and last year's ITM Championship finalists, the Manawatu Turbos.
Long-time starters like Mils Muliaina, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Stephen Donald have all departed for overseas contracts. But in their place comes the likes of Aaron Cruden, Sonny Bill Williams, Sam Cane and Mahonri Schwalger, giving Chiefs fans a reason to be excited for the coming season.
Can these Chiefs get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009? Since being destroyed by the Bulls in the final (which I totally regretted waking up early to watch), the Chiefs have followed their second-place finish with mediocrity. In fact, they have as many wins in 2009 (nine) as they have had since then (10).
The biggest questions surrounding the team are in the set-pieces. They have always been known for having an exciting back line, and this year is no different. Their tight forwards, while a solid group featuring World Cup players, need to show they can compete at the scrums and lineouts with the other teams in their conference.
North Harbour import Ben Afeaki impressed last year with his work in the loose and his solid scrummaging. Tongan international Sona Taumalolo will be looking to pick up where he left off after having a promising World Cup. At hooker, Samoan captain Mahonri Schwalger will bring leadership and physicality. Behind him is three-test All Black Hikawera Elliot, who is probably the most mobile hooker in the country.
At second row, Taranaki captain Craig Clarke and Samoan international Kane Thompson will probably be leading the way. Behind them are NZ Under-20 player Brodie Retallick, Waikato man Romana Graham and one of Rennie's Manawatu imports, Michael Fitzgerald. These men will have to compete with the four other New Zealand second rows that all feature All Blacks.
Behind them will be a number of great loose forwards. Captain Liam Messam and former All Black openside Tanerau Latimer will hope to regain the form that led them to their All Black caps. Joining them are Under-20 player of the year Sam Cane, hardman Fritz Lee, uncapped All Black Scott Waldrom and the bulldozing runner Alex Bradley. All of these men are quick to the breakdown and solid with ball in hand.
The Chiefs' back line has never been short of excitement. At halfback, former All Black Brendan Leonard will be trying to regain his starting position against the man who replaced him, Tawera Kerr-Barlow. But perhaps the most exciting addition for the Chiefs this season is that of Aaron Cruden. Until being injured against France in the World Cup Final, Cruden was looking like the player he was supposed to be, making great decisions, attacking the line and not shying away from tackling bigger men.
At his disposal is a back line featuring World Cup winners Sonny Bill Williams and Richard Kahui. Sonny Bill brings the offloading ability while Kahui will be looking to stay healthy and pick up where he left off. On the outside are the slippery Lelia Masaga and Sevens superstar Declan O'Donnell.
At the back, taking over from longtime starter Muliaina is the exciting Tim Nanai-Williams, who will be looking to make the most of his new starting opportunity with the Chiefs. In space he is hard to catch, and he also brings goal-kicking ability to the table, in case Cruden struggles. Behind him is Southland pivot Robbie Robinson, coming up from the Highlanders.
With a potent back line like this, the Chiefs will be exciting to watch, providing their forwards can help them out. If the Chiefs can find some consistency, they could be in the running for a playoff berth. Can they become relevant again in Super Rugby?
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