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'An Achilles' heel': Why the Chiefs have tweaked their loose forward strategy

By Tom Vinicombe
Mitch Karpik and Lachlan Boshier. (Photos by Jeremy Ward/Photosport)

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In 2021, the Chiefs had to call upon the services of 13 different loose forwards to help get them through the Super Rugby season. While injuries will inevitably play a part in additional players being called up for next year’s campaign, coach Clayton McMillan has selected seven loose forwards who he hopes will be able to bear the brunt of the load, even if one or two men are unavailable.

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Eight back-rowers were named at the beginning of the 2021 season: Kaylum Boshier, Lachlan Boshier, Mitchell Brown, Sam Cane, Luke Jacobson, Mitchell Karpik, Simon Parker and Pita Gus Sowakula. Every single member of that cohort spent significant time on the sidelines, with Kaylum Boshier, Karpik and Parker mustering just one start and seven appearances between them.

The bulk of the group has been retained for the upcoming year, with No 7s Lachlan Boshier and Karpik the only two absences. Boshier, who has been in excellent form over the past two seasons but had his pathway into a black jersey blocked, has shifted to Japan, while Karpik was rarely able to take the field during the NPC after his disrupted Super season.

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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.
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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.

While Boshier certainly won’t feature for the Chiefs in 2022, the door for Karpik to make a return has been left ajar by coach McMillan.

“I love Karpy, he’s a real warrior,” McMillan said after announcing his squad. “He missed a good chunk of the NPC this year and he needs to get some surgery to tidy up the shoulder

“Injury, more than anything, has meant that he’s missed out but if he can get himself fit again, he – alongside a whole bunch of other quality players that have missed out – will be sitting on the periphery in the event of injury.”

Despite losing the services of two openside flankers, the Chiefs haven’t filled their spots with like-for-like replacements. Instead, Waikato blindsider Samipeni Finau is the sole addition to the loose forwards, earning a full-time contract after joining the squad early in 2021 due to the aforementioned injury crisis.

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McMillan has suggested that Kaylum Boshier – Lachlan’s younger brother – is the man set to back-up All Blacks captain Sam Cane in the No 7 jersey.

“Kaylum Boshier, we used him as a 7 last year,” said McMillan. “He did a really good job before injury sort of curtailed his year but he’s managed to come back and play the last couple of games, played a pretty pivotal role for Taranaki in the semi-finals and final. We think he’s really capable of being a 7 and then I guess we’ve also got Luke Jacobson, who’s played there before.”

A lack of out-and-out openside flankers in the squad hasn’t happened by chance, McMillan confirmed, with the Chiefs coaching group wanting better balance across the backrow for the season ahead. In the event of inevitable injuries, there is a trove of talented flankers across the country who the coaches are confident can step up to Super Rugby level if called upon.

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“What we’ve tried to do is we’ve just tried to create a better balance across our whole loose forward selections,” McMillan said. “If Sam is fit and available, he’s going to be playing more often than not and so it’s been part of our philosophy that if that comes to fruition then holding another couple of 7s in behind him could potentially be an Achilles’ heel in terms of getting a good balance.

“We also take a lot of comfort in knowing that there are some quality 7s out there, Mitch Jacobson, Tom Florence, other guys that are in our region that if required, can more than adequately step into that space.”

Jacobson was a key performer for Waikato during their Premiership-winning run in the NPC and has notched up a handful of Super Rugby appearances for the Chiefs and Sunwolves over the years while Florence, who has represented both the Highlanders and Chiefs, was similarly impressive for Taranaki during their Championship season.

Chiefs loose forwards for 2022:

Blindside flanker: Mitch Brown, Samipeni Finau, Simon Parker
Openside flanker: Sam Cane, Kaylum Boshier
Number 8: Luke Jacobson, Pita Gus Sowakula

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