How the Cowbells must have been ringing overnight in Hamilton, as they celebrated their 37-6 demolition of the Sharks... or should I say how they must have been ringing from Counties Manukau to Taupo - as 2012 was the year that the whole catchment area, not just Waikato, got behind the Chiefs in their bid to become Super Rugby Champions..
There is no doubt that Chiefs had been the most impressively balanced team in this year's competition. A fine attack masterminded by young conductor Aaron Cruden at fly half and a ferociously mean defence had led many assured judge in the southern hemisphere to predict Chiefs glory in the final. If anyone deserved the title, they did, it seemed.
Their horror show in the 2009 Super Rugby final though (where they were dealt a seriously good hiding by Heynecke Meyer's Bulls) coupled with the Sharks ominous momentum had even the staunchest of Chiefs fan a little worried that things might not go entirely to script. Fortunately for Dave Rennie's men, that anxiety was all but relieved after 40 minutes of play, as they dished out their own dollop of 'finals punishment' to the visiting Sharks, who ultimately left Waikato stadium battered, bruised bloodied.
While the Chiefs can now be relieved of their tag as NZ's 'greatest underachievers', further questions will surely be asked of the fragility of the Sharks' psyche. They have now lost all four of their Super Rugby final appearances (1996, 2001, 2007 and 2012). Travel weariness aside, they should have performed better.
So how did the Chiefs build a championship winning side so quickly?
There is no doubt that the new coaching team had a huge influence on the players, the team structures and the general culture around the franchise. An ethic of pure and simple hard work was instilled into the squad from the minute they stepped onto the training paddock in early 2012, while their mantra 'respect is hard earned and easily lost' was evident through the actions of the players.
Even when they suffered consecutive losses to the Crusaders and the Hurricanes at the end of the round robin, it was clear that it wasn't for the lack of trying. Dave Rennie, Wayne Smith and Tom Coventry had made it clear that they wanted the squad to 'spill blood' and 'empty the tank' on the field. That attitude won them fans and it won them key matches too.
|Dave Rennie (right) became the first debutant coach to win a Super Rugby title|
Each coach importantly also succeeded in their specific department of responsibility. Head coach Dave Rennie kept alive the Chiefs' tradition of flair on attack, with the back-line conjuring up some truly beautiful tries during the round robin. Ian Foster's influence was not missed in that area at all.
Wayne Smith also transformed their infamously leaky defence. He set the structures and the players trusted them. By the final, they had become an incredibly well drilled and organised outfit - they astoundingly only conceded one try during the knockout rounds, despite competing against two of the most clinical attacking sides in the competition (Crusaders and Sharks).
Tom Coventry meanwhile brought some steel and consistency to the forward pack. Their was an old school feel about them. Less of the flash and more of the head down, ball up the jumper stuff. Previously unheralded players shone brightly in that environment.
Captain Craig Clarke could probably count himself unlucky not to be selected in the All Blacks squad for the upcoming Rugby Championship, while Sona Taumololo, Kane Thompson and Mahonri Schwalger all added a competitive edge. The pack began to look gnarly rather than flaky.
|Co-captains, Liam Messam and Craig Clarke, led the team brilliantly in 2012|
Of course championship winning sides are not build on sweat alone though and the Chiefs had the odd sprinkle of stardust around the team too, which made all their rivals take note after they knocked off strong kiwi teams in the early rounds.
New recruits Aaron Cruden (from the Hurricanes) and Sonny Bill Williams (from the Crusaders) were a delight to watch in tandem and combined quite beautifully again in the final. Quite frankly, they became almost impossible to stop in this year's Super 15. Their combination was lethal as Cruden lured the opposition in, Williams used his physicality to punch holes and offload and the outside backs reaped the rewards. No coach seemed to come up with a blueprint to stop them. The Crusaders came closest when they came up with the tactic: 'don't give them the ball'. They still weren't able to replicate it in the semis though.
Liam Messam also came strongly to the fore this year; his final performance arguably his best of the season; 13 tackles made, 12 runs, 2 broken tackles and 85 running metres gained. Cruden may have received a lot of the plaudits for seemingly having the ball on a string, but Messam's perspiration was equally as vital in the Chiefs demolition job of the Sharks. Their much vaunted backrow of Daniel, Coetzee and Kankowski just couldn't equal his energy around the park. Once Messam and co finished them off around the 60 minute mark, their really was no way back for the Durban based side.
Lastly though, the Chiefs succeeded because young and previously largely unknown players stepped off the conveyor belt and took the competition by storm. Brodie Retallick within 6 rounds was touted as the solution to plug the cavernous hole left by the departure of Brad Thorn from the All Blacks last year. His no nonsense style; hitting rucks aplenty with no thought for his own well being made Steve Hansen and co. sit up and notice. Young prop, Ben Tameifuna, also had some terrifically workmanlike performances, earning himself a spot in the AB's squad as reward. His monster hit on Ryan Kankowski in the final also gave hint of his future promise.
|Kerr Barlow was electric as link between the forwards and backs.|
Tawera Kerr Barlow was an absolute live-wire at scrumhalf too. His running threat at the base of the ruck switched the focus of attention of opposition defenders and allowed his outsides, Aaron Cruden and co, to do some serious damage. By the end of the competition, he was arguably New Zealand's form halfback.
Others such as Tim Nanai-Williams, Robbie Robinson, Sam Cane and Andrew Horrell all had their time in the sun too. Vitally when players succumbed to injury, other squad members took their place and performed well. Did the Chiefs really miss classy, injured centre Richard Kahui that much in the play-offs for example? Horrell certainly didn't look out of place in my opinion.
It's very easy to start talking about dynasties when a team is victorious in a significant competition and sometimes it ends up being premature, but with the talent coming through, it's really quite plausible that the Chiefs could become the new Crusaders. Sonny Bill Williams exit to Japan will be difficult to deal with next year but they will now have the belief, they already have the talent and this side (one would think) still has so much time left to serve in New Zealand rugby. The Kerr Barlows of this world are just getting started. Ominous indeed for everyone else.