The Chief's 2001 – A Season Review
by Paul Kendall
30 Jun 2001
Many people within the region would have regarded John Mitchell’s appointment as the new Chiefs coach a surprise. Although he had established a successful career in England, firstly with Sale and latterly as an assistant coach with England, his lack of coaching experience in New Zealand was expected to count against him.
More surprises were to come when the Chiefs squad was announced, which featured 9 players in their first season of S12 rugby and the return of former All Black Mark Cooksley from the rugby wilderness. Mitchell, himself a former no.8 and captain of the successful Waikato NPC and Ranfurly Shield team of the early 1990s, predictably chose Deon Muir to led his team.
The results from the first three games were mixed and included two heavy defeats away to NSW and the Crusaders either side of a close win over Queensland at their new home – Rotorua International Stadium. Although these games were used to give most squad members an opportunity to cement a regular starting position the season was very much in the balance entering week 4 of the competition. The local derby against the Blues proved to be the pivotal game in the fortunes of both teams for the remainder of the S12. A convincing win to the Chiefs over their northern neighbours, including a hat-trick of tries by centre Keith Lowen, gave them the confidence and self-belief before an important series of home matches in the upcoming weeks.
The next game against the Highlanders was undoubtedly the Chiefs’ best game of the season to date resulting in a comprehensive victory due to an outstanding display on attack and defense, much to the delight of the capacity crowd in Rotorua. The 50 points scored in this match were also the most by a Chiefs team in the S12, while halfback Danny Lee matched Lowen’s try scoring feats from the previous game.
The new-look attitude and resolve of the Chiefs was never more evident than in their next game against the Cats in Tauranga where the visitors dominated both possession and territory but were denied victory by a courageous defensive effort from the Chiefs, who tackled themselves to a standstill. The fact that Cooksley played the game in spite of suffering the effects of a severe stomach bug was an example of the team’s resolve on the day.
Their last home game in Taupo proved to be a disappointment as the Sharks were far too clinical and the Chiefs were reduced the surviving on scraps of possession. Despite being outmuscled in the forwards captain Deon Muir led superbly from the front, while openside flanker Marty Holah was another to impress. The South African trip was to follow and started with a high-scoring win over the Bulls but ended with a loss to the Stormers, where Chiefs’ mistakes and turnovers proved costly in the final analysis.
An arduous trip back to New Zealand for a crucial game against the improving Hurricanes at the Cake Tin was next on the agenda. This was a game where both teams knew that a loss would effectively end their season.
Against all the odds, 3 tries in quick succession prior to halftime paved the way for a deserved Chiefs victory, which Mitchell described as "the defining moment of the season". Given the importance of the match I would label it the best performance of the season and arguably the most complete by a Chiefs team since the inception of the S12.
This win meant that for the first time since 1998 the Chiefs began the last round knowing that their destiny was in their own hands. The bad news was that they needed to beat the Brumbies in Canberra – a near impossible task. Injury disruptions before the match didn’t help their preparation, nor did the fact that they had 2 players in the sinbin during the match, but in the end the eventual S12 champions were far too good and highlighted the difference in class between the teams on the night.
Despite stumbling at the final hurdle I look back on the Chiefs year with some satisfaction and I am optimistic about next season. Mitchell has brought a refreshing back-to-basics approach to the team where he places an increased importance on the fundamentals of the game; skills which have steadily disappeared from New Zealand forward play over the past decade.
He has also created a strict work ethic, injected a professional attitude into the players, and the team spirit looks to be at an all-time high. I’m not sure Chiefs teams of the past would have beaten the Cats and Hurricanes under similar circumstances. At the start of the season Mitchell viewed his job as a 2-year project, and while the Chiefs’ sixth place finish equals their best ever position in the S12, much more will be expected of them next year. Their first objective must be to secure that elusive semi-final berth.
Five players (Roger Randle, Lowen, Mark Ranby, Holah and Cooksley) were rewarded with selection in the All Black training squad, while Muir, Royce Willis and Bruce Reihana were desperately unlucky to miss out.
A total of 14 players had their first experience of S12 rugby and the likes of Deacon Manu, Dennis Hazelton, Holah, Jonno Gibbes, Kristian Ormsby and David Hill look to have promising careers ahead of them.
Holah was undoubtedly the find of the season but if I was single out one player for special praise it would be their inspirational captain Muir. His performances during the S12 seem to epitomise the Chiefs motto – "It’s all about heart".