The wait to reach the Super 14 final has been far too long for the Waikato Chiefs.
Chiefs are ready to lay ghosts to rest
The wait to reach the Super 14 final has been far too long for the Waikato Chiefs. In the early rounds it looked as though the season would once again finish without them even making the semi-finals, a stage they had graced just once before. They began with three straight defeats. You could hear the "hear we go again" cries of distress and damnation from supporters and opponents.
But three months later the Chiefs are on the doorstep of history. They have seen off the best in New Zealand and Australia and are on the verge of history as they challenge the Pretoria Bulls today for the Super 14 title in Pretoria. It has been a superb graduation for the Chiefs, a side with a swag of talent in the looseforwards and backline, but a motley pack of forwards. At least they were at the start of the campaign.
They were no-names, cast-offs, ring-ins and draft players. That collection, intoned most observers, would balance against any amounts of brilliance the Chiefs could squeeze out of their brilliant backs. They were facing another year of disappointment. It was not possible, the criticism continued, for a Rolls Royce backline to perform effectively on an engine with oily and limited spark plugs. Fast forward through the agony of a difficult start and the Chiefs are one win away from claiming a crown which has only been nabbed by four sides, the Canterbury Crusaders, Auckland Blues, CA Brumbies and the Bulls, since the professional rugby series started in 1996.
The transformation has been a credit to the coaching staff led by Ian Foster, the tactics and adventure, the massive team spirit and the advances made by the tight five. These are the men with the small numbers on their back, the grunt and groan merchants who have to sweat away at the technically demanding set-pieces of scrums and lineouts which govern a substantial part of a team's success in modern rugby.
Even then the Chiefs resources were stretched as Ben May, one of their improving props, twisted his knee and was gone from the play-offs. It may be stretching it to believe any of the tight five will graduate to All Black colours when that initial squad is named tomorrow. However they should make it into the Junior All Blacks who are also heading off to play a series in the Pacific Islands. Hooker Aled de Malmanche has been a bustling ball of energy, a trifle erratic with his lineout throws, but a prototype for the modern hooker in his damaging ball carries about the park.
The props Arizona Taumalolo and James McGougan have been revelations in their first season of rugby at this level, lock Kevin O'Neill has shown that his one cap for the All Blacks was no fluke when they were missing players, while Craig Clarke, a draft player overlooked by two previous franchises, has been a great toiler. It has been a mix that has worked. It was difficult to believe it would survive the season or even the semi-final against the Wellington Hurricanes who were laden with All Black scrummagers.
Sometimes it creaked, but it somehow held as the Chiefs won 14-10. But this is a different scenario for Waikato. Travelling halfway round the globe for a final, at lung-busting altitude, against a Bulls pack with behemoths like Bakkies Botha, a lineout master in Victor Matfield and looseforwards like Pierre Spies, who has the pace of a wing and the strength of a prop. It is a fearsome challenge for the Chiefs.
Centre Richard Kahui, who has boosted confidence with his return froma calf injury, admits the Chiefs have self-belief. "Every time we step on to the field we feel like we know we are going to win. It's been like that the last few weeks," he said. It has been like that for much longer. The Chiefs have lost just one game in the last 11 as they have stormed to the final. That solitary defeat came against the Bulls at Loftus Versfled, the scene of this winner-take-all rematch where the hosts have been unbeaten all season.