The Chiefs could’ve come last in 2019. Well, being worse over the long haul than the Sunwolves would’ve been some feat – despite losing 30-15 to them in March – but the Chiefs were definitely in contention to be the bottom-placed New Zealand franchise.
That they were able to finish seventh overall, and produce a creditable quarterfinal performance, speaks volumes for coach Colin Cooper and those players still standing.
Injuries, and an 0-4 start, would have been curtains for lesser teams and you imagine all involved at the Chiefs will look back on this year with some pride. They definitely succeeded where failure was the easier option.
Actually a lot to choose from. Beating the Bulls and Jaguares on the road breathed life into their campaign, while the 33-29 home win over the Blues came at a time when the visitors were full of confidence.
The 23-23 draw with the Hurricanes in week five was another real high point, given the Chiefs had lost all four games before then.
But when you think of the competition as a whole and which games – if any – have stood out this year, plenty of people will remember the Chiefs’ 40-27 win over the Crusaders in Suva as the best round-robin match of the season. If you weren’t entertained, and impressed, by that, then you can’t enjoy sport too much.
The loss to the Sunwolves won’t be forgotten in a hurry, nor the way the Brumbies demolished the Chiefs 54-17 in Canberra.
But the 23-17 defeat to the Lions was a shocker, on so many fronts. Not least the turmoil the Lions were in about playing a match on Good Friday. Coach Swys de Bruin had a genuine breakdown over the issue and had to be sent back to South Africa.
The Lions were a deeply religious side, he said, and going ahead with the match compromised all of their values. They came into the match on the back of heavy defeats to the Sharks and Brumbies and ought to have been beaten by the Chiefs too.
All roads lead to second five-eighth Anton Lienert-Brown.
Always admired for being a steady, dependable type of player adept, particularly at All Blacks level, at doing serviceable jobs at both second-five and centre, the 24-year-old was brilliant for the Chiefs this year.
His vision, offloading skills and pace were all in regular evidence, as was his leadership.
With Sam Cane recuperating from neck surgery and Damian McKenzie and Brodie Retallick spending lengthy spells out injured, the Chiefs needed someone to show the way. Time and again, Lienert-Brown was that man.
He wasn’t alone. Brad Weber was terrific too, and others enjoyed good spells, but none to match Lienert-Brown’s.
A host of Chiefs players produced more than you assumed they were capable of.
Shaun Stevenson, Aidan Ross, Lachlan Boshier, Luke Jacobson, Tumua Manu, Sean Wainui, Jesse Parete, Angus Ta’avao all kicked on this season, Others, such as Solomon Alaimalo, built on already useful foundations.
But one player, be it at lock or No.8, excelled himself like no other. Canada’s Tyler Ardron became the Chiefs’ forward leader in Retallick’s absence, demonstrating an admirable range of skills and consistency.
Without him there would have been no quarterfinals in 2019.
What a relief
It’s hard to sum up the significance of Sam Cane’s return from a neck fracture.
To be upright and healthy and active is one thing. To be able to return to playing is quite another.
But not only did Cane come back, just seven months after suffering the injury, he returned in superb style.
You winced that first night back, against the Blues in May, hoping he’d come out of each collision unscathed. As the weeks rolled on, you forgot about his safety and just concentrated on the quality and bravery of his performances.
It remains to be seen how All Blacks coach Steve Hansen uses both Cane and Ardie Savea during the international season, but it’s some luxury to have two supremely talented No.7s with such differing skills.
The Chiefs can attack 2020 with confidence.
Brodie Retallick’s new deal with New Zealand Rugby means he won’t be around but, if 2019 taught the team anything, it’s that they can cope without the odd star. The rest of this year’s squad is expected to remain intact.
There was an odd groundswell to have recently resigned coach Colin Cooper sacked, just a few weeks into the second season of a three-year deal, but that died down as the wins piled up.
The Chiefs have a decent forward pack, good backs and if they can keep McKenzie fit then they ought to be top-four contenders.
Mark out of 10 for 2019
A solid seven.
Something in the two to three out of 10 range seemed possible at one point, but such was the quality and consistency of rugby the Chiefs ultimately played that you’d have to describe this season as a good one.
Cooper and his staff deserve great credit for that, as do players such as Lienert-Brown, Weber, Ta’avao and Ardron. Well done.
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