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All Blacks prop Atu Moli set for first Chiefs appearance of the year while Liam Messam promoted to start

By Tom Vinicombe

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It’s been over a year since Atu Moli last ran out for a game of professional rugby but the talented prop is finally set for some minutes after a number of harrowing injuries.

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Moli, who represented the All Blacks at the 2019 World Cup, has been named on the Chiefs’ bench for their Saturday night clash with the Brumbies.

The 25-year-old has notched up a handful of club appearances this year and last featured for the Chiefs in their final match of the initial Super Rugby campaign last season that was cut short due to the global pandemic.

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Moli underwent FAI (femoroacetabular impingement) surgery on both his left and right hips to treat chronic hip dysfunction while he also spent considerable time on the sidelines in 2018 due to a leg-threatening haematoma.

“We’re really happy for Atu,” said head coach Clayton McMillan. “He’s had a bit of a treacherous run with injury but he’s maintained a whole lot of positivity and continues to add heaps of value off the field, in and around our environment.

“Now that he’s worked himself back to a point where he can get back out on the field I think is great for everybody and rugby to see.

Moli’s return offsets the loss of fellow tighthead prop Angus Ta’avao, who will join fellow prop Reuben O’Neill on the injury list.

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“He’s sort of trained with us over the last six or seven weeks at tighthead and it’s really through Gus pulling up with a bit of a join strain from middle of the game last week that has opened the door for Atu to come in but that’s timing,” McMillan said.

“We’ve been sort of asking the last two or three weeks whether he’s ready to go but he wanted a little bit of time at club rugby. He’s got that and now he’s fizzing.”

Sione Mafileo will take over the No 3 jersey while Moli is set to make his return from the bench. Mafileo will be joined in the front row by Samisoni Taukei’aho, who made a storming impact off the bench against the Western Force last weekend while Aidan Ross holds his place at loosehead prop.

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The only other change to the forwards sees 181-cap Chiefs legend Liam Messam slot in on the blindside flank with Pita Gus Sowakula expected to add impact from the reserves.

“Pita Gus has done an outstanding job for us and to be fair, I think Liam will probably give us more early in the game and Pita Gus will give us an injection of power and speed,” said McMillan. “I’m not saying that Liam hasn’t got that anymore but [we’re going for] the experience and the front-end and a little bit of explosiveness at the back-end.”

In the backs, Damian McKenzie somewhat surprisingly will again start the match in the first five position. Saturday’s game against the Brumbies will mark the first time that McKenzie has retained the same role over consecutive weeks since the Chiefs’ win over the Highlanders in early April.

In fact, there’s just one change to the backline with Bailyn Sullivan taking over from Shaun Stevenson on the right wing.

Bradley Slater, Rameka Poihipi and Kaleb Trask all join the substitutes bench.

The Chiefs have lost their last two fixtures against the Brumbies but McMillan is confident that following their first hit-out with an Australian team last week, they’ll be well-prepared for the challenges ahead.

“You just respect the Brumbies right across the board,” he said. “[They’re] probably the most clinical of the Australian sides, I would think. A bit like the Crusaders, very structured, put a lot of pressure on you at set-piece. They’re a good side irrespective of who we put out there.”

“We know we’ve got an arduous four weeks ahead of us but we don’t want to make excuses for anything and you’ve just got to embrace it, make the most of it and get out and play.”

Chiefs: Chase Tiatia, Bailyn Sullivan, Anton Lienert-Brown, Alex Nankivell, Jonah Lowe, Damian McKenzie, Brad Weber, Luke Jacobson, Lachlan Boshier, Liam Messam, Tupou Vaa’i, Josh Lord, Sione Mafileo, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Aidan Ross. Reserves: Bradley Slater, Oliver Norris, Atunaisa Moli, Zane Kapeli, Pita Gus Sowakula, Xavier Roe, Rameka Poihipi, Kaleb Trask.

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All Blacks prop Atu Moli set for first Chiefs appearance of the year while Liam Messam promoted to start

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