With the 2013 Super XV just around the corner it felt like an appropriate time to have a bit of fun and speculate about some ‘Best of’ sides, and I’m carrying on with the Hamilton-based Chiefs, a side with a complicated history and a huge catchment area.
Please note that no specific selection criteria was used here; some players have been chosen because of the significance of their contribution to the side, some because of the their longevity in the jersey, and some simply because they were far too good to leave out. No doubt there will be plenty of opposing opinions regarding my selections, but with that disclaimer out of the way, here is my ‘Greatest Ever Chiefs Team’.
Right off the bat I struggled with the front row, and it became apparent that, despite the Waikato NPC team being famous for its forward play, the Chiefs have struggled to put together a cohesive tight five throughout their history. I’ve opted for Deacon Manu as the first of my props, with the New Plymouth-born Fijian having represented the franchise on 56 occasions in the mid-2000s.
His propping partner is one of the Chief’s recent batch of players, the dynamic Tongan prop Sona Taumalolo. Showing a penchant for scoring tries the blockbusting loose-head has an incredible turn of speed and was an integral part of the Chiefs’ run to victory as they claimed their first ever title in 2012.
I chose a current player, Mahonri Schwalger, to play in between them in the number 2 jersey. The vastly experienced Samoan international brought consistency and professionalism to the Chiefs in their 2012 campaign, employing all the experience he had gained in a Super Rugby career which began in 2005 and featured stints at both the Highlanders and the ‘Canes.
I went for Ian Jones as the first of my locks, even though the veteran of 79-tests only played 38 times for the franchise. Hailing from Northland Jones was a proud Chief who immediately accepted a leadership role within the side and toiled away throughout some challenging years.
I’ve paired Jones with Keith Robinson, whose career would have been far more illustrious had it not been punctuated by serious injuries. Robinson beats out the gigantic Mark Cooksley and the inspirational Craig Clarke for his spot, but he deserves it due to his physical, committed approach and the way he inspired those around him with his take-no-prisoners attitude, a mindset which earned him 12 games in the All Blacks’ jersey.
Jono Gibbes gets my vote on the Blindside. The robust flanker could also play lock, and captained the Chiefs courageously during a career that spanned 68 Super Rugby games. Gibbes was a fearless leader whose crowning moment came when leading the New Zealand Maoris to a famous victory over the touring British and Irish Lions in 2005.
In the number 7 jersey I’ve selected 36-test All Black Marty Holah, who represented the Chiefs with distinction from 2001-2007. Fantastic over the ball, Holah would have demanded a regular spot in any other team in world rugby, but a wealth of talent in the loose forward ranks, and in particular the emergence of Richie McCaw, curtailed his international career.
At the back of the scrum I’ve gone for Liam Messam. I know it’s not necessarily his preferred position, but I think he warrants inclusion in the side given his contribution, particularly in recent years. The other main candidate for the 8 jersey was the barn-storming Sione Lauaki, who on his day was one of the most destructive runners in the world. Unfortunately for him and the Chiefs his day was too infrequent, with inconsistency marring his professional career. Messam, on the other hand, is a superbly conditioned athlete who has continued to mature in the 15-aside game, and it’s clear for all to see how important he is to the culture of the current Super XV champions.
Halfback was an interesting one. Brendan Leonard is unlucky to miss selection in my team, and would have nabbed the number 9 jersey if I hadn’t categorized Byron Kelleher as a Chief. While Kelleher played slightly more games for the Highlanders he finished his career at Super Rugby level in Hamilton, and I believe that’s where most Kiwis probably associate him. Kelleher had an illustrious professional career that included 57 All Black caps and over 100 games of Super Rugby, and his sniping darts around the fringes were dangerous at every level.
Stephen Donald has beaten out David Hill at first-five. Love him or hate him, the ‘Beaver’ more often than not shone at Super Rugby level, and he was a huge part of Waikato rugby for the better part of a decade. He played 89 times for the Chiefs, amassing 796 points, and after being famously discarded by the All Black management after a dismal performance against the Wallabies in Hong Kong was called back in to the national side in time to kick the winning points in the 2011 World Cup Final!
The Chiefs have always had immense talent in the outside backs, and this was a particularly difficult decision. I desperately wanted to include Glen Osborne, a quality player whose All Black career was overshadowed by the emergence of players like Christian Cullen and Jeff Wilson, but who nonetheless was a world-class player. But lack of game time for the Chiefs made me look elsewhere, and while Lelia Masaga has been an exceptional performer in recent years I felt Richard Kahui probably deserves to slot in to the side somewhere, so I’ve given him a wing spot. Kahui has the skills and physical attributes to be one of the Chiefs’ finest, if only he can stay injury free long enough to string together some decent performances and continue to develop his undeniable natural ability.
The other wing was a far more straightforward decision, with that place in my side going to Sitiveni Sivivatu. The Fijian-born flyer was a relentless force through the majority of the first decade of the new millennium, playing 68 times for the Chiefs whilst amassing 45 test caps and scoring 29 tries in the black jersey. For a time he was the All Blacks first-choice winger, and one of the most dynamic players on the planet.
At second-five I’ve gone for Sonny Bill Williams. This was a huge call, when you consider veteran All Blacks like Walter Little were in the mix, and Richard Kahui could have easily slotted in to the midfield, leaving room for Masaga or Osborne on the wing. But I can’t look away from the influence Williams had in 2012, and it’s no coincidence that his outstanding form happened in the same season as the Chiefs claimed their first ever title. Even though he only played one season for the Hamilton-based franchise he also seemed to embrace the culture of the side, far more so than he had during his brief stint in Canterbury, and I think he earns his place in the team on merit, due to an extraordinary contribution to the champion 2012 side.
At centre I couldn’t resist picking one of my all-time favourite players, Frank Bunce. Scott McLeod is unlucky to miss the team, and is a player often overlooked when we reflect on recent rugby history in New Zealand, but in all honesty I only had eyes for Bunce. After representing Western Samoa at the 1991 World Cup he made his debut for the All Blacks at the not-so-tender age of 30, and immediately became a mainstay of the side, going on to wear the black jersey 55 times in an illustrious career.
I was still thinking of trying to fit Osborne in to the side when I came to fullback, and it would have been easy to class 100-test veteran Mils Muliaina as a Blues player, given the fact he played 8 more times for the Auckland-based side, but, like Kelleher, I believe more people associate Muliaina with the Chiefs, and I think his contribution to them was greater than that which he made to the Blues. So, once I had decided Muliaina was a Chief the decision was easy, with the All Black legend simply too good to consider any other options.
So there it is, my Best Ever Chiefs side. A few surprises, and some contentious decisions based around a flimsy selection policy (!), but I stand by my choice of the following side – 1. Manu 2. Schwalger 3. Taumalolo 4. Jones 5. Robinson 6. Gibbes 7. Holah 8. Messam 9. Kelleher 10. Donald 11. Sivivatu 12. Williams 13. Bunce 14. Kahui 15. Muliaina