Sunday, April 22, 2012

Chiefs' self-belief will stretch the Crusaders JUSTIN MARSHALL 23/04/2012

OPINION: There was a moment early in the second half of the Chiefs' clash with the Sharks where they came of age as a genuine threat in this year's Super Rugby competition.
It wasn't a blinding move. In fact, they didn't score any points off the decision they took. You could even argue it cost them taking better control of the game at that point.
But at 10-9 up and with a penalty virtually in front of the posts, the Chiefs spurned an easy three points and instead laid siege to the Sharks line.
It didn't matter that they didn't score.
What mattered was they demonstrated they weren't the Chiefs of old who would have lacked the confidence to opt for bigger spoils and instead would've taken the gimme kick.
It's been a long time since I've seen a Chiefs, or Waikato, outfit with the resilience and self-belief of this 2012 model.
Even before this match, there might have been a temptation among the squad to take the view that they'd already won the first two of their "mini-tour" overseas games.
The words of old rocker Meatloaf "two out of three ain't bad" could easily have been the mantra.
Not this time.
There was almost a Crusaders-at-their-best-like mentality about the Chiefs' approach which has me relishing the next time these two face each other.
After effectively burying the game against the Hurricanes as a contest by halftime, the Crusaders showed on Saturday night they're not far off rediscovering their mojo.
They're not there yet, which is not ideal for their future opponents given the way they dispatched the Hurricanes.
They still haven't got their game balance right. Forwards and backs are still not working in unison and, as a result, they're not stringing enough phases together to create sustained pressure. But then they didn't have to against a disappointing Canes.
Facing the Chiefs in Hamilton in week 20 will be the real test of whether they remain our Super Rugby flagbearer or if the Chiefs, and/or the Highlanders, have stolen their mantle.
This is obviously rather critical of the Crusaders as their performances in recent weeks have been excellent, but I know they will be seeking perfection and I believe it's not far off.
One player certainly not far off is Kieran Read who, by his standards, had made a quiet start to the season.
I remember last year when I was helping out Canterbury's backs with some advice during the ITM Cup season and a training session when Kieran and Richie McCaw turned up unannounced to do some fitness work.
Richie's not a guy you want to do "extras" with. He trains like he plays. The pair proceeded to pound out some relentless running drills. There was nothing sexy about the workout.
It was a plain old-fashioned slog and I felt for Kieran when Richie forged out to a 10-metre to 15-metre lead.
I'll never forget the look on Read's face though. He just wouldn't let Richie get away from him. There was a look in his eye that told you this was a man you could never take lightly.
He hung in there with Richie and I remember being hugely impressed.
We've seen that same character in Kieran's recent performances for the Crusaders – and I believe we've also seen a maturity in him as a leader.
Not only has he regained the mobility and robust approach that marked his All Blacks efforts last season but he has become an exceptionally smart captain.
I didn't necessarily agree with the initial suggestions a few seasons back that Read was destined to be our next All Blacks captain. Now I do.
The key reason for that is he has learnt a secret of captaincy.
Let me explain ... when I first came into the All Blacks, Sean Fitzpatrick was already being hailed as one of our greatest ever captains. Until then, I had only played against Fitzy. And all I knew was that he was a relentless, overwhelming menace who spent as much time sledging as he did bouncing off opponents. He annoyed me immensely.
Playing with him, I suddenly realised he hadn't changed his playing style just because he was the skipper.
Richie is the same. He gives away a handful of penalties every game because he is in there competing.
It never dawned on him that maybe he should not give away as many penalties now he was the captain. Just like it never occurred to Fitzy that a smart-arse comment at the opposition could be seen as being unbecoming of an All Black skipper.
In other words, neither man changed their playing style just because they had the little "c" next to their name. And they were right to take that approach.
It seems to me Kieran Read has learnt the same lesson.
I thought the captaincy weighed on him a little early in the season.
He was in the ear of the refs a little too often, seemingly frustrated at how things were going.
Now he is taking the bull by the horns, leading by example and intelligence.
It is no surprise the Crusaders have responded accordingly.
So now we have an old champion outfit finding its feet as the senior players respond, while further north we have the Chiefs looking – and playing like – a future champion.
Roll on that Hamilton match-up.
- Bringing players into a squad in critical positions is never easy, but obviously necessary when multiple injuries happen. What makes it more difficult is when the players being drafted in are plying their trade outside New Zealand. Difficult yes, and often it does not work. Mike Delany and Jamie Joseph, however, got it right big time.
- Statistically the Crusaders kick the ball more than any other team in Super Rugby. Maybe because they do they do it with accuracy, at the right time, and with a good chase to back it all up. Playing territory is not just about hacking the ball aimlessly down the field hoping for a positive result, a lesson maybe for the Hurricanes to consider.
- Refereeing is without doubt an extremely difficult and thankless occupation. Travelling alone, dealing with hostile home supporters; it must be very lonely at times. Then, of course, are the decisions you make. You can never get them all absolutely correct in a match with so much going on. One way or the other you are going to have players, coaches and supporters questioning certain calls that influence games. Craig Joubert is not perfect, but he is close and that is what makes him the world's best right now.
- I wrote an article on Wayne Smith earlier this season and one of the points I made was I believed his time coaching at international level was not done. Reports from Britain suggest current England coach Stuart Lancaster travelled to South Africa to meet Smith during the week. Given his influence already with Dave Rennie at the Chiefs I would suggest the NZRU keep up with the play as his talents would surely be better served in New Zealand.

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