Sunday, February 25, 2024

OPINION: Chiefs scrape in

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Having scraped into the Super Rugby last eight playoffs in seventh spot, the Chiefs once again showed the courage that has characterised their game.

Written off before they shocked the defending champion Crusaders in Suva after conceding the first 20 points, the Chiefs completed their last qualifying game in a blaze of glory with their dazzling 59-8 away win against the Rebels.

With halfback Brad Weber and midfield star Anton Lienert-Brown leading the way for most of the season, flanker Sam Cane’s late comeback from a broken neck provided the inspiration needed to clinch qualification, as did Brodie Retallick’s recent return from injury.

Cane didn’t flinch in putting his neck and the rest of his body in places angels fear to tread. He’s a tough, brave bloke who doesn’t intend to gift dynamic Ardie Savea his No 7 All Black jersey without a fight.

The speedy Weber deserves to go to the World Cup as the third halfback behind Aaron Smith and PJ Perenara and it continues to surprise me that the choir who continue to sing Sonny Bill Williams’ praises rarely mention Lienert-Brown.

Sure, Sonny Bill did well in his comeback 29-24 loss to the Hurricanes but he also muffed his first two offloads.

Lienert-Brown’s may not be as spectacular but they’re always accurate and there are no discernible weaknesses in his game.

At 37, Ma’a Nonu has been a rock for the Blues and not the sort of rock that saw them sink to 12th on the table. He gave his best but no longer has the speed to justify a return to the All Blacks.

Losing their last game 29-24 to a second string Hurricanes starting line-up after leading 24-5 at halftime pretty much repeats all you need to know about the Blues. They’ve improved but they continue to find more ways to lose than win.

Just as the Chiefs snatched a qualifying spot at the last grasp, so did the Highlanders in claiming the final eighth spot with their 49-12 trouncing of the dreadful Waratahs.

That lifted New Zealand’s playoff representation to four when not so long ago it looked as though it would be limited to two.

Argentina have one, the much improved third placed Jaguares, who won 11 of 16 games and will pose a danger hosting the Chiefs this weekend.

Meanwhile the Crusaders should win on home turf against a Highlanders side that has welcomed back Waisake Naholo and could start Ben Smith after his long injury break.

The Hurricanes should beat the Bulls who thrashed the Lions 48-27 last start while the Brumbies will seek to remain as Australia’s only representative when they host the Sharks.

Meanwhile it’s nice to see Benji Marshall overjoyed with his recall to the Kiwis rugby league team after his absence over the past few years. A passionate New Zealander who takes great pride in wearing the Kiwi jersey, he gets his chance as Shaun Johnson’s halves partner following injury to Kodi Nikorima.

However beware of a strong Tongan team who, before a vast crowd of vocal supporters, will be eager to repeat their World Cup win against the Kiwis.

  • Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author.

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