Wellington - The double defending champion Waikato Chiefs hardly set the world alight as they scraped into Super Rugby's playoffs but are heading to Canberra for the rematch of last year's final against the ACT Brumbies with a confident spring in their step.
The Chiefs finished fifth following tense victories in their final two matches of the regular season to set up the sudden-death fixture with the fourth-placed Brumbies, who hammered fellow playoffs contenders the Western Force.
It is unfamiliar territory for Dave Rennie's team, who finished top of the table in the last two years to earn a week's break before hosting the semi-finals on the way to the final.
“Probably all the talk a couple of weeks ago was that our hopes were gone,” Rennie told Hamilton newspaper, the Waikato Times.
“But we started to pick up a couple of wins against kiwi sides, which are always tough, and we're rapt to be part of it because we now get to prepare for another game and we just have to pull out a big 80 each week.
“If we've got aspirations of winning this thing we're going to have to win all three games away from home probably so we'll just treat it as the same sized bit of dirt as we've got at home.”
The Brumbies were impressive in beating the Force at Canberra Stadium on Friday and after hammering the Chiefs 41-23 at the same venue earlier in the season see the playoff as a chance to avenge last season's 27-22 loss in the final.
Rennie said there was a feeling of 'deja vu' about the Brumbies, with the Australian team having spoken of revenge before the regular season game as well.
“They were really up for it,” Rennie said. “There was a lot of talk about payback for the final here last year, so it was a pretty big occasion for them.
“And they probably coped with it better than we did.”
The Chiefs were missing co-captain Aaron Cruden in the team that lost in April but the All Blacks flyhalf is back from injury and playing near his best form.
Lock Brodie Retallick, who was impressive against England in June, has also galvanised his fellow forwards and will provide an aggressive challenge to the Brumbies.
One of the biggest changes since the international break has been the increased intensity in defence from the Chiefs, who were forced to play catch-up earlier in the season as they leaked tries and points.
“In terms of our defence, it took a massive stride in the right direction last week and again this week,” Cruden told the New Zealand Herald.
“It comes down to the effort and attitude of the guys.
“We've probably had that (finals) mentality for the last two weeks so it's created a bit of an edge around training.”