2013 Season Preview: CHIEFS
by Brendan Bradford –
Not many people gave much thought to the Chiefs at the start of last season.
Fly-half, Aaron Cruden was fighting his way back from injury, there were still question marks over Sonny-Bill Williams, their back three were questionable and their forward pack was largely written off.
By the end of the year though, the durable Cruden was Player of the Tournament, Williams had established himself as one of the best midfielders in the world, tighthead-prop Sona Taumalolo was a try-scoring, cult hero and the rest of the forward pack had silenced the doubters with a season of uncompromising efficiency resulting in a series of All Blacks call-ups.
Oh, and they won their maiden title.
Although the task of defending the trophy – a feat only achieved four times in 17 years of Super Rugby – has been made that much harder by the departures of SBW and Taumalolo, there’s a solid framework for the Chiefs to work with in 2013.
Their style of play last season excited the rugby world as previously unheralded players like Tim Nanai-Williams, Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick offered a sprightly dynamism to the seasoned pros like Liam Messam, Mahonri Schwalger and Lelia Masaga to create a winning formula that was as enjoying to watch as it was successful. If they can replicate that this year, another tilt at the title isn’t out of the question.
Co-captain, 29-year-old Craig Clarke, has been at the Chiefs since 2009 after stints at the Crusaders and Hurricanes. The hard-working lock is leaving for Irish club Connacht at the end of the 2013 Super Rugby season and is keen to defend the Waikato franchise’s maiden title. Twenty-two year-old halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow had the dream year in 2012. Originally slated to start on the bench, the New Zealand age-group representative ended the Championship season as first choice scrumhalf and even earned selection to the All Blacks for the end of year tour.
Rugby News chatted to Clarke and Kerr-Barlow recently about winning and defending the Super Rugby title.
Last season was obviously the most successful year in Chiefs history, how will you build on that this year?
Tawera Kerr-Barlow: “The new coaches last year introduced a lot of new systems, so it’s just picking up where we left off and working just as hard, if not harder to try and get better and try and go back to back. Everyone’s trying to win the competition and it’s the little things that count and whoever can be most consistent will win, but we’re really excited about the season and we’re working bloody hard.”
Craig Clarke: “The base of last year was a lot of hard work and we’ve just been trying to replicate that with the preseason we’ve just done, it’s been pretty intense.”
You flew under the radar at the start of last season, how different will it be being the big guns that everyone is aiming for?
CC: “It was like that at the start of the campaign in the first half of the season, but in the run home we were one or two on the table and were the top dog for a while, so we have experienced that. Playing finals footy and the build-up to finals footy will prepare you for playing teams who want to bring you down a peg too.”
You played an exciting, quite audacious brand of rugby last season with skilful backs and a lot of hard-working forwards – not unlike the Reds in 2011. Will that be the winning formula this year too?
CC: “It’s hard to say what the trends will be this season, but it certainly worked for us. We had a mindset that we weren’t just a forward pack living to provide ball for the backs, we were taking the ball to opposition as well.”
TK-B: “Yeah, I think we’ll play a similar style again. Sometimes we were probably guilty of trying to play a little bit too much and having to dig ourselves out of trouble, but we’ve got a real exciting bunch of players. With Aaron Cruden running the cutter at first-five, he makes very good decisions and if it’s time to run from our line, we’ll run, but if not we won’t. We’re looking to playing a real working-man’s brand of football and we’re just working hard so we’ll see what happens.”
How did preseason go?
CC: “It’s been pretty intense with conditioning and gym, but we’ve tied it into our rugby stuff so we’ve been doing a fair bit of contact and working hard around some of our skill sets.”
TK-B: “It’s been pretty good, I started at the end of January because of the All Blacks tour at the end of the year but the other blokes were training flat-tack since before Christmas. I was missing the boys actually, so I was pretty happy to get back into it. It’s the first preseason that I haven’t really done fully since I started and while it was good to get a break, I’m rearing to go.”
I heard you had a fairly intense preseason training camp? (The camp involved a tortuous two-day expedition that saw players cross the Waikato heartland on bikes, kayaks and on foot.)
TK-B: “Yeah, it was bloody hard work mate! We were starting at 6am and finishing towards 5:30pm, so it was a hell of a couple of days. There was a 21 km bike race in a triathlon and we went up Mt Te Aroha. It was a massive event.”
CC: “Yeah, that was a fairly intense weekend. There was some hard work, but also some learning for the lads, seeing the province that we represent and some of the sights and also meeting some of the people we represent too, so it was good.”
What does it mean to have that sort of connection to the area you represent?
CC: “All teams probably do it to an extent, everyone has a unique area they represent, but I think we get a really good buy-in to what we’re trying to achieve and we dig into our history a little bit and tie it into the way we play.”
TK-B: “Yeah, that’s really been driven quite strongly this year. We enjoy going into the community and places that we don’t usually get to see. It’s good to get out there and get in touch with some of our cultural roots. Some of the boys aren’t from here and aren’t familiar with it, so it’s all about bringing everyone in under the same banner and making them part of our franchise.”
The big talking point is the departure of Sonny Bill Williams, but Sona Taumalolo is almost as big a loss. Do you have the depth and talent to cover for the gaps they leave?
CC: “We know that Sonny is a unique individual and you can’t replicate what he does, but we’ve got really good midfield cover. We had Andrew Horrell play there and guys like Charlie Ngatai who’s a really seasoned midfielder, so he’ll be able to perform there. In terms of Sona, we’ve got a lot of front row cover as well, we had a lot of injuries last year so not everyone was available but we’ve got a lot of depth this year so we’ll be fine in that area as well.”
TK-B: “We’ve got some fantastic new acquisitions to our team with Charlie Ngatai and Bundee Aki who are really exciting young players, and Andrew Horrell can play anywhere in the backline. In our front row, we’ve got Toby Smith, Ben Afeaki and Ben Tameifuna so I think we’ll be alright. Sonny and Sona are great players and we’ll feel their loss a little bit, but I’m sure the new blokes will be able to step up to the mark.”
Do you think the June test window affected the Chiefs in any way?
CC: “We used it on a case by case basis and if guys needed to freshen up, they were allowed to. We went away and had a minicamp and played a local team in the Bay of Plenty, just to keep some footy under the belts, it worked really well. Guys that needed footy got footy and guys that needed to freshen up did.”
TK-B: “It’s always good to have a break. Super Rugby is played at a real high intensity, training is really hard and the boys definitely earn their break. In some ways it’s good, but I guess if you’re on a roll you could say it affects you. But you get time to recover and come back fresh, so I’m sure if you stay on top of things over the break it won’t affect the boys too much.”
Tawera, last season was a break-out year for you with cementing a spot in the Chiefs starting line-up, winning a Super Rugby title and earning a Test cap for the All Blacks. What’s it been like over the past twelve months?
TK-B: “It was always my dream to play rugby for a living and a dream to play rugby for my country as well. It was just a fantastic year for my team, for myself and for my family. Now, I’m just looking to build on that and keep enjoying my rugby and if I do that, it’ll take care of itself. Hopefully I’ll get back in and get some game-time for the AB’s, but it’s a really highly contested position, so we’ll just have to see how it goes.”
Craig, there are plenty of youngsters coming through the Chiefs, like Tawera, Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick, do you think these guys can take it to another level this season?
CC: “Definitely. They’re the kind of guys who won’t want to rest on what they did last season and they’ll want to put their hands up and prove why they were All Blacks. They’re all really good guys with good heads on them.”
The co-captaincy role isn’t that common, how did that go with Liam Messam last season?
CC: “Obviously, it was a success for us. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea and some teams might not do it but for us it’s ideal. We complement each other really well and he sees things a bit differently than I do and across the field we connect with everyone really well, so it works for us.”
Did you take up different roles, or was it more of a non-verbal thing that worked?
CC: “During the week it was pretty much our leadership group that ran the cutter and had all the input, but then on game day the referees need an official captain to talk to, that’s why we do that.”
The New Zealand conference will be hotly contested again this year, who are your main rivals for the top spot?
CC: “You’d have to say all the teams are unknown at this stage. I know the Highlanders have recruited really well and brought in some experience. The Canes are like us and had a really exciting new team and played some good footy last year. The Blues will be hungry to prove a point and the Crusaders are the Crusaders!”
TK-B: “To be honest, probably everyone – you can’t take any of the NZ teams lightly. They’ve all got quality players and players with X-factor. The NZ conference I’m sure will be really exciting this year, but you can’t take anything away from the South African or Aussie teams either, so it’ll be a really good comp this season.”