You would think the Chiefs squad would be good enough to handle the loss of inspirational captain Sam Cane.
But clearly not, judging by the evidence shown so far in four losses to the Highlanders, Brumbies, Sunwolves and Crusaders at the start of their 2019 Super Rugby campaign.
The Chiefs have not been this lacking in motivation since the days when Ian Foster was head coach. Remarkably, his poor record at the Chiefs was rewarded with promotion to the All Blacks’ coaching panel, but that’s a story for a rainy day.
What Sam Cane offered in every game was a refusal to give in, clear-headed leadership after conceding early points and the hardest front-on tackler running around in rugby boots anywhere.
The boy from Reporoa learned his craft at the Chiefs from two of the greatest flankers to play Super Rugby in Liam Messam and Tanerau Latimer.
Sam’s recovery from a broken neck, suffered while playing for the All Blacks against the Springboks last October, needs to take as long to heal as is necessary.
But without him, the Chiefs have looked lethargic and out of their depth - most notably in the home loss to the Sunwolves from Japan in Hamilton two weeks ago.
The opening period against the Sunwolves, who had not previously won away from home, showed how much Cane is missed. While the cat’s away, the mice are having a ball.
First, slightly built first-five Hayden Parker (better than anyone the Blues have) cut back and shrugged off the defensive lunges of the loose forwards before Michael Little (ditto the Blues ahead of Sonny Bill Williams and Ma’a Nonu) showed his class to cut the defensive line to shreds.
Neither of the Sunwolves’ inside backs would have done so if Cane was playing, but therein lies the problem with the Chiefs. They are lacking the desire to get up and make another tackle when lungs are burning, or to make that cover tackle in the corner rather than concede a try and to generally make the opponents wish they had stayed on the team bus.
Mind you, the Sunwolves fielded just two or three Japanese players for most of the match. How that is good for improving the consistency and experience of the best players from Japan is beyond me.
Against the unstoppable Crusaders in Christchurch last Saturday, the Chiefs coughed up the possession, they did not aimlessly kick back to the Crusaders.
It is time for a new breed of Chiefs to put their hands up and show the sort of commitment to the cause that epitomised what made Cane, Latimer and Messam such great players.
Not all of the Chiefs are performing below expectations, but too many are. Anton Lienert-Brown, Brodie Retallick and little halfback Brad Webber have been outstanding in a losing effort.
It is great to see Aidan Ross start all four games at loosehead prop after his blossoming career was struck down by a broken leg 12 months ago. But for that injury, he may well have followed up his NZ Under-20 credentials with the ultimate goal of wearing the All Blacks jersey.
Aidan came through the ranks at Otumoetai College, Tauranga Boys’ College, Te Puke Sports and Bay of Plenty Steamers, and is now at a stage where he is in the top echelon of New Zealand loosehead props (they are the guys who wear number one on their backs).
World Cup year is not the worst time to prove you deserve a chance to shine at the highest level of all. And it would be no less than Aidan deserves.