The Waikato Chiefs. For me there hasn't been a more impressive effort from a group of rugby players and officials than what has happened in the Waikato in recent years. In terms of pure results, the Chiefs are probably ahead of the Crusaders as Aotearoa's premier rugby franchise but in terms of the complete package, for mine the Chiefs have taken the blueprint and put their own spin on it. The Chiefs are just that, but they aren't the single chief, they are a group of chiefs who are all on the same page and have combined talent with team culture and desire.
Strangely, Hamilton is now the place to be. I say that in good jest for all you funky H-Town cats, but in a purely rugby sense players see the Chiefs as a great place to further their rugby careers. Well, that's if the Chiefs want you. Over the past few seasons they have picked up players from around the country, giving them an opportunity but only if they fit the mould of players they want. I looked at the Auckland Blues last week and the Chiefs are pretty much the opposite as their recruitment strategy isn't so much about names, but more so about the player, their ability and if they fit within the culture.
Sonny Bill Williams may be a name, but he's the type of person that fits perfectly with the Chiefs. He's returning to the Waikato from the NRL and you can expect the same old SBW roaming around the midfield breaking tackles, flicking off loads out the back and causing general mayhem for defenders. We pretty much know what to expect from SBW, but 2015 will be about the pieces around him with much of the focus on his midfield partner. You could see Andrew Horrell, Charlie Ngatai, Tom Marshall, Seta Tamanivalu or even Tim Nanai-Williams partner SBW in the Chiefs' midfield which not only points to an impressive midfield combo but plenty of solid depth. Not just normal depth, but solid depth where the coach can trust the player he brings in fully and the player responds perfectly.
It's obviously awesome to have so many players to choose from, but a cynic with plenty of puns could say that there's too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Look at the fullback spot which could very easily be occupied by Horrell or Nanai-Williams and then you've got the McKenzie brothers (evidence of fabulous recruitment) from Southland who go alright.
The thing is that there's plenty of Indians to go along with the chiefs. The only certified All Blacks in the Chiefs' backline are SBW and Aaron Cruden, with the rest of the starting backline and the depth players worthy of their spots in Super Rugby, but not quite able to kick on to higher honours (or there's no spots open to kick on in to). That's perfect though as no one has to overplay their hand or feel like they have to make up for their team mate's weakness, each player is a solid option.
The chiefs within the Chiefs - SBW, Cruden, Liam Messam and Sam Cane will be interesting to watch this season. Besides SBW who is a near certainty, wait, I mean SBW has to show everyone that he's still alright at this rugby stuff and the other three lads are all competing for a starting All Blacks spot in a World Cup year. Cruden's always under pressure as we've got a few handy first five's, Messam's had to deal with the return of Jerome Kaino (how unfortunate) and Cane is still very much in the mix and will be keen to push Lord Richie for the 7 jersey. Not to mention that Cane will be playing without Tanerau Latimer this season which should allow Cane some comfort and confidence.
The very fact that Latimer and Cane kind of shared the 7 jersey for the Chiefs shows you the way things are the Waikato.
Besides Jamie Mackintosh and Ben Tameifuna, there aren't too many instantly recognisable names in the forwards for the Chiefs. That's probably just how they like it at the Chiefs as there won't be crazy hype or distractions about their pack, they'll just be eager to do a job and lay a solid platform.
Then you have Brodie Rettalick, who is one of the only locks in world rugby who you can genuinely build a team and playing style around. Every other team in Super Rugby will expect a few core roles from their locks, but the Chiefs are able to play safe in the knowledge that not only will they be rather good at lineouts but also that they have a huge lad who will hit rucks, carry the ball when no one else is keen and throw his body around all over the show with freakish athleticism. The Chiefs have three lads in their forward pack who they can count on for that international effort, that last ditch tackle after a marathon chase or somehow magically appearing in support when all hope seemed lost. Many Super Rugby teams will be pretty jealous of what Rettalick, Messam and Cane offer.
The Chiefs will once again be extremely fun to watch this season as they have all the bases covered. Not only are they a solid, wholesome, team orientated franchise but they're also very good. The two clearly go hand in hand and the Chiefs appear to have figured team sport out. The challenge for the Chiefs will be continuing to stay at such a high level which could force them to go to a new level thanks to the turn over of players. There's many new faces, young lads with plenty to prove but all they have to do is fall in line and follow the script.