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The biggest hurdle standing in Chiefs' way to claiming first Super Rugby title since Dave Rennie's side a decade ago

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13th February, 2024
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It has been an encouraging few years for the Chiefs under coach Clayton McMillan.

The men from Waikato have been transformed since his ascendency to the top job in 2021, with 2023 signalling their arrival as the legitimate challenger to wrangle the Egg Basket trophy away from Christchurch. 

Their growth is not just reflected in results on the field. The growth of players in the region who seem destined to lead the All Blacks into their next phase of rugby dominance seems hard to ignore, with Samisoni Taukei’aho, Tupou Vaa’i, Luke Jacobson, Emoni Narawa and a certain Damian McKenzie already established names for the national side. 

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Smashing the Crusaders in Christchurch? Done. Topping the ladder for the season? Done. Bar one loss to the Queensland Reds in New Plymouth, 2023 was an emphatic year for the Chiefs, and it felt like their destiny to win the title.

Except, they didn’t. The Crusaders did what they have a knack for doing: they may have lost the two regular season fixtures, but they won the match that counts most to send out Razor a winner. 

Now, a new year brings a new lie of the land to the Super Rugby season. Make no mistake, despite trial trip-ups, the Chiefs are still a heavyweight contender for 2024, maybe even more so than last year.

The Chiefs fell at the final hurdle in 2023. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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2024 Summary 

All New Zealand teams are undergoing a period of transition, but the men from Waikato seem to be in a position to weather the change a lot more than many of their counterparts. 

Granted, they have key leadership losses in the form of All Blacks captain Sam Cane, and stalwarts Brodie Retallick, Angus Taʻavao and Pita Gus Sowaluka, and while 15 players have departed Waikato, the club will welcome eight new arrivals, with five graduating from NPC sides and feeder teams. 

Nearly all changes, bar Kaleb Trask filling in as a fly-half backup, will be in the forward pack serving as key support and backup to an imposing starting squad. 

It confirms a key fact: this is a settled, young, dangerous squad with top-class options in every position. It is not just filled with 12 All Blacks, but most of the squad have excelled for the Maori All Blacks and the New Zealand U20s squad. If there is any indication of the future of options in New Zealand, the Chiefs are it, distilled into one team. 

Up until 2024, the club’s success is based heavily on McMillan’s focus on doing game fundamentals well: combining with a strong setpiece ‘forwards first’ approach, he has built the foundation to release a ruthless backline.

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But this is a double-edged sword: the Chiefs have been in the finals mix every year since 2012, however, following up on those two back-to-back titles under Dave Rennie has proven elusive. 

Mastering finals and being surprised by the opposition has happened to this team on several occasions, and while it may happen rarely, it happens enough to keep them one or two performances away from winning a title. 

Squad & New Inclusions

The Chiefs will lose a lot of forwards in 2024, but given the amount of IP present at the club, their recruitment suggests continuing investment in future generations looms as the key priority.

With Atu Moli heading to the Force, Taʻavao to the Blues and Alex Nankivell to Europe, the Chiefs have signed Kauvaka Kaivelata (Counties Manakau) and Sione Ahio (Auckland) to complement Ollie Norris and Aidan Ross.

Several exciting Kiwi prospects have also returned from stints overseas, with Tom Florence returning from MLR to be signed alongside NPC players Wallace Sititi and Malachi Wrampling-Alec, who will be understudies for new skipper Jacobson and Samipeni Finau. 

Etene Nanai-Seturo of the Chiefs celebrates after scoring a try during the Super Rugby Pacific Final. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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The backs will be relatively unchanged despite a few departures, with McKenzie set to be well supported in the centres by Anton Lienert-Brown and Quinn Tupaea, and a lightening back three in Narawa, Etene Nanai-Seturo and Shaun Stevenson.

Squad: *denotes new signing

Props: Sione Ahio*, George Dyer, Kauvaka Kaivelata*, Ollie Norris, Reuben O’Neill*, Jared Proffit, Aidan Ross

Hookers: Bradley Slater, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Tyrone Thompson

Locks: Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Josh Lord, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Jimmy Tupou*, Tupou Vaa’i

Loose Forwards: Kaylum Boshier, Samipeni Finau, Tom Florence*, Luke Jacobson, Simon Parker, Wallace Sititi*, Malachi Wrampling-Alec*

Scrumhalves: Cortez Ratima, Xavier Roe, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi

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Flyhalves: Josh Ioane, Damian McKenzie, Kaleb Trask*

Centres: Anton Lienert-Brown, Rameka Poihipi, Daniel Rona, Quinn Tupaea, Gideon Wrampling

Wingers & Fullbacks: Liam Coombes-Fabling, Peniasi Malimali, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Emoni Narawa, Shaun Stevenson

Cortez Ratima of the Chiefs celebrates with his team after scoring a try during the round one Super Rugby Pacific match between Crusaders and Chiefs at Orangetheory Stadium, on February 24, 2023, in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Strengths & Weaknesses

It should go without saying that on paper and on the park, this is a strong squad with established starting names and exciting depth eager to impress. 

The Chiefs’ backline is a ruthless set-up, set to be controlled by halves Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and McKenzie, and both have strong replacements in Xavier Roe, Cortez Ratima and Josh Ioane respectively should they receive an All Black call-up or go down with an injury. 

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McKenzie has been touted as among the most dangerous players in Super Rugby and a future crux of the All Black set-up, so his combination with fellow Lienert-Brown will be especially deadly. 

The forward pack may be the place that has seen the most recruitment, but any cohesion issues will likely be nullified by the fact that so many All Blacks, combined with established talents like Norris, will likely be among the starting side. 

Damian McKenzie

Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Several recruits like Reuben O’Neill and Trask also have had experience in the Chiefs camp before, so it also won’t take long for the new squad members to be singing from the same sheet music. 

To lay things really on the line here; with the depth they have and the minimal disruptions to the squad compared to their Kiwi or Aussie counterparts, plus the changes in personnel at their nearest rivals in Canterbury, the Chiefs would be among the largest favourites to win the title in 2024. But their claim comes with a major asterisk.

Unlike the Crusaders, the Chiefs can be prone to being surprised by opposition and have been tripped up frequently in finals. Whether it be resting too much on their laurels or underestimating the opposition, if a team beats them upfront physically and denies them the ability to unleash their backline, they have found it difficult to wrestle back momentum. 

While they can beat some teams in their sleep, there is a growing chasing pack in both New Zealand and Australia that is more than capable of knocking the Chiefs off their game. You don’t walk in and just take the title – they still have to earn it, and that complacency can be (and has been) their undoing. 

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The Queensland Reds were one of the sides to surprise the Chiefs in 2023. (Photo by Andy Jackson/Getty Images)

Fixtures

The Chiefs will arguably start with the hardest opening five weeks of any side in the competition, taking on established heavyweights and exciting up-and-comers. 

Kicking off with a grand final rematch against the Crusaders, they then face arguably the two strongest Australian sides away from home, taking on the Brumbies in the Super Round and an improving Reds outfit at Suncorp Stadium. 

Facing another improving side in the Drua in round four back at Waikato, their round five Highlanders clash looms as the first match they’d arguably be comfortable favourites for, with a trip to Christchurch shortly afterwards. 

However, the middle of the season will see them face Moana Pasifika twice, the Hurricanes twice and the Western Force all in New Zealand, with away trips to Sydney and Melbourne both very winnable contests. 

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Aside from a tough assignment against the Blues at Eden Park to cap off the regular season, the Chiefs should finish the season full of momentum, and with multiple wins under their belt. 

Predicted Finish: 1st

Despite the personnel changes, the Chiefs have enough in them to finish the regular season as the team to beat. Whether they can kick on afterwards is another question. Should they overcome their complacency issues (especially come finals), the writing is on the wall for McMillan, McKenzie and company to deliver a third title. However, as any rugby head would tell you, 15 weeks is a long time. 

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