2023 Chiefs vs Blues

Unbeaten Chiefs Hope Decade Worth Of Misses Make 2023 Worthwhile

Unbeaten Chiefs Hope Decade Worth Of Misses Make 2023 Worthwhile

What a difference 10 years makes. For Super Rugby’s Chiefs, all the change in that time has, for the most part, been for the better and much appreciated.

Mar 31, 2023 by Briar Napier
Unbeaten Chiefs Hope Decade Worth Of Misses Make 2023 Worthwhile

What a difference 10 years makes.

For Super Rugby’s Chiefs, all the change in that time has, for the most part, been for the better and much appreciated.

A member of the competition since its inception (it first was known as Super 12) in 1996, the Hamilton, New Zealand-based club took some time to hit the ground running in what would evolve into arguably the most stacked club rugby competition in the world. 

The Chiefs didn’t have a playoff appearance until 2004. The Chiefs appeared in their first playoff final in 2009. Then, in 2012, the team’s most hallowed run in Super Rugby got going.

The lineup featured club legends and international caps galore, including the likes of captain Liam Messam, lock Brodie Retallick and flanker Sam Cane. 

They helped the Chiefs to back-to-back Super Rugby titles in 2012 and 2013, joining an exclusive fraternity of repeat winners and giving themselves a high point in club history that hasn’t been matched.

But exactly that – failing to reach the pinnacle again in the time that’s passed – has been a primary motivator for the Chiefs, and in leading the 2023 Super Rugby campaign through five rounds, the league’s only unbeaten team appears to be getting tired of waiting around.

“In a World Cup year, there is a lot at stake for individual players,” Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan said in a preseason team news release ahead of his side’s Round 1 fixture against the Crusaders. “But right now, our focus is 100% on being at our collective best week in and week out, and if we do that, winning a Super Rugby title is a realistic goal for us.”

Playoff appearances no longer are the outlier, but the norm, for the Chiefs in the decade that’s passed since 2013’s title. The team has qualified for the Super Rugby’s postseason every year since (excluding the regionalized competitions that were spurred into action due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021), but the main issue was that they hardly did anything with those trips to the playoffs.

The Chiefs have been eliminated before the final in every season since their last championship, and though a third-place regular-season finish in 2022 – the Chiefs’ best finish in the table since 2013 – plus a quarterfinal win over the New South Wales Waratahs, brought some hope that the recent trend could be reversed.

Unfortunately, a semifinal loss to the Crusaders (who went on to win their fourth straight Super Rugby title) ended those aspirations with a thud.

In a rematch with the five-peat-chasing Crusaders to start the 2023 season, the Chiefs announced with emphasis that the Super Rugby status quo may be bound for a shakeup.

The Chiefs shocked the defending champions with a 31-10 victory – and at Orangetheory Stadium, no less – notching nearly all of their points in unanswered fashion. They scored four tries and got an 11-point kicking day from standout Damian McKenzie in his return to the club following a one-year stint in Japan in 2022.

“We prepared well, and the desire to work hard for the full 80 minutes was outstanding,” McMillan said in a team release following the Crusaders win. “Anything less than that, and you won’t come away from Christchurch with much, so it was a pleasing start.”

The good vibrations haven’t stopped yet. 

Leading the league at 5-0 on 23 points, with a competition-low 85 points allowed defensively, the Chiefs are looking to pull off the ultimate double – victories over the Crusaders and the team they beat in last year’s final, the Blues.

Now fourth in the current table, the Blues lost by six to the Crusaders in the rematch, which came in Round 4.

The 27-year-old McKenzie, who is looking to fight his way back onto the All Blacks for the World Cup later this year in France after an injury ruled him out of the 2019 tournament, hasn’t appeared to have missed a step. He’s among Super Rugby’s top point-scorers with 43 through five matches and is the team’s primary kicker. 

But the breakout star undoubtedly has been 26-year-old winger Shaun Stevenson, whose league-high seven tries have seen him in the mix for potentially getting his first crack with the senior New Zealand side after appearances at youth level and with the Maori All Blacks – a good position to be in with the next iteration of the most important international rugby event mere months away.

With the Chiefs’ bye week coming in Round 7, McMillan and his men would love nothing more than to be sitting on top with a flawless record, as they enter a rest period to recuperate. 

A second-half push and continuation of good form will be critical for the Chiefs’ status as true contenders, however, rather than just a squad that fills up the numbers in the playoffs – a reputation they’ve been stuck with being in the past.

Beating the Blues, a nearby rival, might give them the jolt they need for a late-season surge after the midseason break – one that if the Chiefs play right, could end in a return to glory.

“I think with the Blues, everything starts and finishes with the breakdown,” McMillan said of the Chiefs’ Round 6 opponent following their victory over the Waratahs last week. “It’s an area they’ve put a lot of emphasis on over the last couple of years. They’ve got the physical capability to really impose themselves on both sides of the ball, so we’ll need to be really tightened and accurate there.”