18 Apr 2021

Charging Chiefs drive lift in quality in Super Rugby's latest round

11:50 am on 18 April 2021

Opinion: Man, Super Rugby Aotearoa turned it on this weekend. After a couple of games last weekend that went to golden point the four teams in action managed to find another gear, in fact playing the two best games of the season so far.

Anton Lienert-Brown celebrates the win.
Chiefs v Crusaders, Super Rugby Aotearoa. FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton. New Zealand. Saturday 17 April 2021.

Anton Lienert-Brown goes airborne as he celebrates with his Chiefs' team-mates after their 26-25 win over the Crusaders. Photo: Photosport Ltd

How good were they? Combined, there were 10 lead changes. For once, there wasn't anything (major) to complain about from the refs. A couple of guys really pushed their claims for the All Blacks. And for everyone outside their region, we got to see the Crusaders lose, which is always good.

Scott Robertson is now facing the biggest test of his astoundingly successful career as coach of the perennial champions. They've now lost two out of their last three games, and the one they won was in golden point extra time against the lowly Hurricanes. One more bad performance next weekend against the Blues, who they comfortably beat only four weeks ago, and you could say they're in crisis mode.

To be fair, having that sort of slip up described as a crisis is more praise than anything else, but it is worth noting that the usually metronomic Richie Mo'unga's very uncharacteristic missed conversion of Codie Taylor's try essentially cost them the game.

Chiefs finally catching on

Meanwhile, the Chiefs have a crisis of their own. Clayton McMillan has managed to do rather well this season - on the surface not actually that hard considering they can't have been any worse than they were last year.

But beyond the results the Chiefs now look very much like a team that's rediscovered who they are and how their brand of rugby should be played.

The weird thing is that this isn't even the first time in recent history that they've had a massive turnaround in form. Only two years ago they started the season by losing to the Brumbies and Sunwolves, then salvaging an improbable end to the season by thumping the Crusaders and Rebels to make the playoffs.

It seems adversity brings out the best in the Chiefs, but the real adversity now lies with their walkabout head coach Warren Gatland. McMillan is only there for this season as cover while Gatland takes the entire year to coach a British & Irish Lions tour that consists of eight matches.

McMillan has got the Chiefs to where they are by earning the respect of the players in what is clearly a complete reboot of their team culture. Does McMillan hit the road once Gatland gets back, or do the Chiefs try and work out some sort of new arrangement?

Maori All Blacks coach Clayton McMillan

Clayton McMillan seems to have rebooted the team culture at the Chiefs, Jamie Wall writes. Photo: Photosport Ltd 2018 www.photosport.nz

The Chiefs' win should have been a big helping hand for the Blues, but they fluffed their lines and lost to the fired-up Highlanders on Friday night.

Almost like Mo'unga's miss, this one can be put down to a couple of key moments that the Blues would love to have again, namely Hoskins Sotutu getting binned for stupidly sticking his leg out to interfere with a quick tap, then Alex Hodgman committing the most brainless bit of foul play just as his team was primed to get back in the game.

Blues forward Hoskins Sotutu.

Hoskins Sotutu must take his share of the blame for the Blues' surprise loss to the Highlanders, Jamie Wall writes. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Much has been made of the Blues' all-All Black prop rotation, but so far while it's made their scrum solid, it's also cost them dearly due to ill-discipline. Ofa Tuungafasi should have been sent off against the Crusaders, then Hodgman's idiocy in driving his shoulder into James Lentjes' head directly led to the Highlanders scoring the winning try.

This was a bad loss by the Blues, no matter the good performances from some of their key backs, because it could have been prevented by a couple of guys who should know better just using their brains.

While there were a fair few empty seats in Dunedin, there was a very good crowd in to watch the Chiefs beat the Crusaders. Hamilton has clearly noticed that its side isn't the broken down rabble that lost an astounding 11 games in a row anymore, and although the Sky TV commentary team seemed to bump the official attendance up by a mere thousand or so whenever it was mentioned on the broadcast, there is every chance the full house sign may be put up at FMG Stadium Waikato before the season is out.

Now who would have guessed that when season 2021 started?

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