Super Rugby Pacific: Chiefs insist best is yet to come after opening-night rout of Crusaders

Opening statements don't come much more resounding than the kind made by the Chiefs against the defending champion Crusaders on Friday night.

After trailing 10-0 early, coach Clayton McMillan's men sparked to life with 31 unanswered points - including 24 in the second stanza - to raise the curtain on the 2023 competition with a shockwave.

The Hamilton-based side ran in five tries to one against the perennial contenders, who struggled to find a rhythm in the face of relentless pressure at both ends of OrangeTheory Stadium - dropping their opening game for the first time since 2016 by 31-10.

Speaking after the match, McMillan conceded his opponents hadn't been at their best. 

But as he somewhat ominously suggested, neither had his.

"[You have to] hope that not a lot goes well for them, because when they get their game going they're bloody tough," McMillan said.

"We've been around here long enough to know that we didn't get them at their best today. But they'll hurt and they'll come back strong. 

"We've just got to keep our feet grounded and know that it was a good outcome, but there's still plenty of growth left in our game too. It was far from perfect."

Brodie Retallick was a stand-out for the Chiefs.
Brodie Retallick was a stand-out for the Chiefs. Photo credit: Getty Images

Nine times out of 10, conceding a double-digit lead early in Christchurch never ends well for the opposition. But the Chiefs shrugged off their slow start by re-establishing themselves at scrum and lineout time, while ramping up their defensive intensity, and the results quickly followed.

"The first half looked like the first half of a competition game where nothing you practiced comes off and it becomes a little bit scrappy," noted McMillan.

"We talked at halftime about completing our sets, starting with set piece - we needed to tidy that up and get some decent ball to launch off and then just get really aggressive and direct with our carry/clean game

"It felt like if we did two or three phases of that, opportunities were going to present themselves and they did, so hats off to the boys."

"We talked about being more selective around our influence at the breakdown. Earlier on I think we got a little bit too consumed with trying to turn the ball when maybe the opportunity was already lost

"We got a lot more selective in the second half. We got more bodies on feet. We worked hard, we got off the line and we started to pressure their skillset, which was pleasing to see."

In the thick of that resurgence were the All Blacks locking duo of Brodie Retallick and Tupou Vaa'i, who were outstanding in all facets, while the team was expertly guided by Damian McKenzie, who was assured in his return from a one-year hiatus in Japan.

Shaun Stevenson was also singled out for praise for his electric performance at fullback, where he was solid under the high ball and took his opportunities on attack in ruthless fashion.

"He just keeps on impressing," said McMillan. "He's had a fantastic last eight months or so and his confidence is through the roof, and that's where we want him to be."

Early in the second half, the Chiefs were dealt a blow with the departure of Anton Lienert-Brown, who limped off with an ankle issue. 

But McMillan played down the severity of the injury - an early prognosis that will have All Blacks selectors breathing a sigh of relief - insisting it was "nothing serious".

He offered a similar assessment of the hamstring injury that scratched Etene Nanai-Seturo from the gameday squad, saying his absence was more precautionary than anything sinister.

The Chiefs will head to Melbourne for next weekend's Super Round, where they'll try to keep their momentum rolling against Moana Pasifika, after a rewarding first-up outing.

"Irrespective of who you play, you put a lot of effort into preparing for your season and it's always nice to come away with a victory in the first game," McMillan explained.

"It's a fairly arduous and unforgiving competition but it's helpful to always keep your nose in front the whole way along. You don't really want to get to the back end of the season and start counting your points, and worry about other teams doing favours for you

"I know we're a long, long way away from having to worry about that sort of stuff but that's probably the nicest thing - to come down here and take some points away from a team you don't often get them against."

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