S15 Preview: Chiefs v Brumbies
The Chiefs will look to become only the fourth franchise to win back-to-back Super Rugby titles when they face the Brumbies in Saturday’s Final.
The Chiefs will look to become only the fourth franchise to win back-to-back Super Rugby titles when they play host to the Brumbies in Saturday’s Final at a sold out Waikato Stadium.
After capturing their first ever title last year, the Chiefs have this season proved that they are no flash in the pan by securing a second successive New Zealand Conference crown and home Final.
Dave Rennie’s charges haven’t just matched their heroics of 2012, they have - up to now - surpassed it as where they were regular season runners-up last year, they topped the table this time round and proved once and for all that they are the new powerhouse New Zealand franchise in beating the seven-time champion Crusaders in the semifinals for the second year running.
Their pedigree can no longer be questioned, nor can that of their opponents on Saturday, the Brumbies.
Unlikely finalists given they finished outside the desired top two positions at the end of the regular season, yet they proved themselves worthy of contesting the Final by becoming the first team to beat the Bulls in a play-off match at Loftus last weekend following a consistent campaign.
They have upped their game significantly this season, with Jake White utilising the experience his exuberant squad gained last year to polish his young diamonds and refine his tried-and-tested territory-based gameplan.
The players' greater understanding and execution of White’s gameplan have seen them go from missing out on a play-off place due to a final-round defeat to the Blues to an Australian Conference title and Final berth in the space of 12 months.
After an eight-year exile, White and captain Ben Mowen have taken the Canberra side back to the promised land, and these band of Brumbies believe they can do what no other Australian or South African side have done - win a play-off match in New Zealand.
"The key thing is we've managed to find ways to win, particularly away from home. There is a lot of belief in the side," said Clyde Rathbone, one of two survivors from the champion Brumbies class of 2004.
"We acknowledge we are the underdogs, but that excites us. The Bulls were favourites last week and we believe we can cause another upset," he added.
Aside from the champions versus underdogs dynamic, what makes Saturday’s showdown especially intriguing is the epic clash of contrasting styles between two teams that are polar opposites.
The most explosive, unpredictable and lethal team of the tournament will come up against the most pragmatic, cunning and calculated tacticians.
Such is the potency of the Chiefs that they scored more points (458), tries (50) and made the most clean breaks (153) than any other side in the regular season despite enjoying the least amount of possession per game of any side (13 minutes 53 seconds).
While their proficiency in broken play and finishing ability is unrivalled, their line-out play has left a lot to be desired. The Hamilton-based outfit have had the lowest line-out success rate of any team this season, winning just 78% of ball on their own throw.
The Brumbies will thus have a decided edge in this set-piece, while the teams are evenly matched at scrum time and when taking the ball into ruck situations.
The Brumbies’ Achilles heel has been their discipline. They’ve conceded more penalties and free-kicks per game than any other side, an ominous statistic heading into a winner-take-all Final.
Tactically, the key men for their respective sides are Chiefs flyhalf Aaron Cruden and Brumbies flank George Smith. Cruden pulls the strings with his instinctive nature and all-round ability while Smith, a member of both the 2001 and 2004 Super Rugby-winning Brumbies sides, has been central to the Canberra outfit’s resurgence with his uncanny ability to win turnovers at the breakdown.
Much like his recalling of Percy Montgomery to the South African side during his World Cup-winning tenure as Springbok coach, White’s recalling of Smith has proved a masterstroke.
Chiefs scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow said they know what they are in for against Smith and the tactically astute Brumbies.
"They play a lot of high balls and kick chases and stuff so they're going to be a real tough side,” he said.
"I never thought in my life that I would get to play against him [Smith], so that will be pretty cool, but he does a pretty good job at the breakdown, so we'll have to try and nullify that.”
Players to watch:
For the Chiefs: Co-captain Craig Clarke is one of five players who will be desperate to end their careers in Hamilton on the ultimate high. The Ireland-bound lock has been immense for the Chiefs in recent years and is arguably the most underrated player in New Zealand. An excellent leader with an impressive workrate and line-out expertise, it’s baffling how an All Black cap has eluded Clarke, who turned 30 on Thursday. As the key man in the set pieces, Hika Elliot can bolster his chances of an All Black recall with a solid performance in the Hamilton pressure cooker. Four-Test All Black Tawera Kerr-Barlow is a threat around the fringes and a crisp distributor, but on Saturday he will need to display tactical awareness from the base. Gareth Anscombe can expect to be tested by a few high balls and is a reliable back up goal-kicker.
For the Brumbies: It’s not by chance that Ben Mowen‘s rise up the ranks has coincided with the Brumbies returning to the upper echelons of Super Rugby. He has well and truly vindicated his surprise selection as captain in the way he has led the side and will aim to drive home the Brumbies’ line-out superiority while maintaining a heavy work load across the park. Jesse Mogg and Nic White were instrumental in winning the tactical battle against the Bulls and will be asked to continue where they left off, as will Christian Lealiifano with his goal-kicking. In the pack, warhorse Peter Kimlin will extend his record as the player with the most game time this season (1 409 minute) and Stephen Moore will add valuable experience to the side coupled with solid set-piece play.
Head to head: The most crucial battle of the Final will be contested by Liam Messam and George Smith. Smith’s return to top-flight rugby has been nothing short of remarkable. He was sublime in his man of the match performance at Loftus and has consequently hogged the headlines. However, Messam won’t be content with being in the evergreen Wallaby’s shadow on the pitch and although Smith has the edge in stealing ball, Messam will aim to outwork the veteran on defence and with ball in hand. Another vital match-up is that between flyhalves Aaron Cruden and Matt Toomua. Cruden is slowly emerging from the shadow of Dan Carter and went tit for tat with the All Black and Crusaders great last weekend. His crucial intercept try highlighted his vision and he’s been dependable in the goal-kicking department. Toomua is a solid if not spectacular No.10 and arguably the better defender. Finally, opposing gamebreakers Lelia Masaga and Henry Speight are sure to produce fireworks out wide should Masaga pass a late fitness test. Both displayed their key strengths in moments of individual brilliance last weekend, Masaga powering over for a try with a barnstorming run and Speight sparking a try with a burst of speed, fend and majestic back hand offload to Mogg.
2012: Chiefs won 29-22, Hamilton
2011: Brumbies won 28-20, Canberra
2010: Brumbies won 30-23, Canberra
2009: Chiefs won 10-7, Hamilton
2008: Chiefs won 42-28, Canberra
2007: Brumbies won 21-15, Hamilton
2006: Brumbies won 28-26, Canberra
Prediction: The Brumbies play a tactical game that's tailor-made for finals rugby. Accuracy, ball-retention, patience on attack and discipline on defence are their keys to victory. The Chiefs, in turn, will need to pick their spots and know when to attack and when to play field position. If they allow the Brumbies to slow down the pace and play a structured game, they could find themselves licking their wounds alongside the Bulls. Extensive travelling will once again hamper the visitors, though, and although they defied the odds at Loftus last weekend, a victory at Waikato Stadium will be a bridge too far for the Brumbies. Chiefs by eight.
Chiefs: 15 Gareth Anscombe, 14 Lelia Masaga/Robbie Robinson, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Andrew Horrell, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Matt Vant Leven, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke (captain), 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Ben Afeaki, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Augustine Pulu, 21 Bundee Aki, 22 Robbie Robinson/Patrick Osborne.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Clyde Rathbone, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen (captain), 7 George Smith, 6 Peter Kimlin, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Fotu Auelua, 19 Colby Faingaa, 20 Ian Prior, 21 Andrew Smith, 22 Joseph Tomane.
Date: Saturday, August 3
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Kick-off: 19.35 (07.35 GMT; 17.35 AEST)
Expected weather: Cloudy with occasional rain (50% chance of rain) and a 12km/h easterly wind. High of 16°C and low of 10°C
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
TMO: Vinny Munro
By Quintin van Jaarsveld