Big shoes to fill: How Pita Gus Sowakula's absence has forced a reshaping of the Chiefs forward pack
Chiefs debutant Samipeni Finau has some big shoes to fill this weekend – but he won’t be wearing them alone.
While Finau will run out wearing the No 6 jersey against the Highlanders on Friday, it seems that the man who he’s really stepping in for is the Chiefs’ regular No 8, Pita Gus Sowakula.
Sowakula didn’t feature in the Super Rugby Aotearoa pre-season and is again unavailable for selection thanks to a frustrating knee injury which, according to new coach Clayton McMillan, will keep him out of action for another few weeks.
In Sam Cane, Anton Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie, the Chiefs have a number of exceptionally talented one-of-a-kind players in their midst who are obviously key cogs in the machine, but even those experienced All Blacks are perhaps less important to the side’s cause than the injured Sowakula.
That’s because the big Fijian offers something that no one else in the squad really can – genuine go-forward.
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In 2020, Sowakula was the first port of call when the Chiefs needed to generate momentum. Whether it was off the top of the lineout or from the back of the scrum, Sowakula was the man that was called upon time and time again to truck the ball up and provide a platform from which the team could build an attack.
During the Super Rugby Aotearoa season, Sowakula’s 91 carries was the second-most of any player in the competition – just seven behind the Highlanders’ Marino Mikaele-Tu’u.
Looking at just the Chiefs, Sowakula made 21 more carries more than wing Sean Wainui, the next most prolific carrier in the squad. Hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho the second busiest forward on attack but he made well under half as many carries as Sowakula, clocking in at just 40.
Unsurprisingly, Sowakula also chalked up the most metres of any forward in the team with 177 to his name – 54 more than Lachlan Boshier, the next best.
While Finau’s selection has been partially dictated by injuries, with the likes Sowakula and Boshier both unavailable this week, the Chiefs still had men like Mitch Brown, Simon Parker and the uncapped Kaylum Boshier to call upon.
The Chiefs have a history of picking men who aren't on too many radars but suddenly burst into the spotlight. Will that be the case for their newest debutant? #SuperRugbyAotearoa #CHIvHIL@realmikepulman with the story.https://t.co/bd37WynAef
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Instead, McMillan has plumped for Finau – a man who initially missed selection in the Chiefs squad when it was named late last year.
“He’s still just a replacement player but clearly he’s been doing some stuff pretty well in the pre-season to warrant a starting opportunity,” McMillan said of his new blindside flanker. “If he goes well then it may present opportunities for him moving forward.
“With Samipeni, he’s a big guy and he’s explosive. His ability to carry and get gain has been really impressive. Defensively, he’s got a lot of hurting in his intentions and we feel that with Sam [Cane], and Luke [Jacobson] playing 8, that gives us a really good balance in the loose forward trio.”
Parker and Boshier – both inexperienced men themselves – are both slightly smaller than Finau, who charts at 193 centimetres tall and 109 kilograms heavy.
Man-mountain Sowakula, for reference, is two centimetres taller and one kilo heavier – but there isn’t a major difference in how the two players measure up.
As McMillan alluded to, with Luke Jacobson playing at No 8 and captain Cane on the openside flank, there’s an alluring harmony to the loose forward trio – which will be squaring off with the combo of Shannon Frizell, Billy Harmon and Mikaele-Tu’u on Friday night.
Jacobson’s return to the fold should be celebrated, given the former New Zealand Under 20s captain’s horror run with injuries.
The 23-year-old was finally able to string some regular matches together during the 2020 provincial season and will be aiming to make up ground in the national pecking order after seeing the likes of Hoskins Sotutu, Akira Ioane and Cullen Grace all earn test debuts last year.
Jacobson won’t be the biggest player on the field, but he’ll be competing with Sam Cane on Friday night to see who can put in the biggest hits.
Sowakula’s absence also looks to have affected the composition of the tight forwards, with Samisoni Taukei’aho preferred ahead of Bradley Slater at hooker.
"If I’m [training] inhibited, I’ve probably got a pretty terrible chance of performing or getting up to their level."@AllBlacks World Cup bolter Luke Jacobson spoke to @TomVinicombe about the highs and lows of 2019. #SuperRugbyAotearoa #AllBlackshttps://t.co/dxe3GZe4P9
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 12, 2020
It’s perhaps an understatement to suggest that the Chiefs lineout has struggled in the past with Taukei’aho wearing No 2.
Slater, the more reliable option, was elevated to the starting side for much of the 2020 season but McMillan has reversed the decision made by then-coach Warren Gatland, reinstating Taukei’aho despite no obvious evidence to suggest his lineout delivery has improved.
If the errors can be kept to a minimum, however, there’s a massive upside to the Waikato hooker’s game. The 23-year-old is a powerful ball-carrier – especially close to the breakdown – and will likely be called upon to regularly truck the ball up in the absence of Sowakula.
While Taukei’aho was well behind Sowakula on the carries metric last year, that difference almost completely disappears after taking into consideration minutes on the field.
Finau’s introduction to the mix could also hopefully help alleviate some of the lineout woes that Taukei’aho brings with him, with the blindside flanker regularly used as lineout receiver for Waikato throughout the Mitre 10 Cup season.
Of course, it would be entirely unfair to pin the Chiefs’ chances on a 21-year-old debutant – but that’s how important Sowakula has become to the team’s fortunes in recent seasons. Unlike some Super Rugby debutants, Finau isn’t being asked to come in and quietly go about his business – he’s being asked to make an instant impact.
It’s not all on his shoulders, of course. With the likes of Taukei’aho, Cane, Jacobson and Tupou Vaa’i also marching out on Friday, Sowakula’s responsibilities are being shared amongst a number of players who have the size and the power to punch some holes in the Highlanders’ defence and cause some damage.
It’s no doubt going to be a highly attritional match – exactly the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from these Super Rugby Aotearoa derbies.
Friday’s match kicks off at 7:05pm NZT and will be available to watch with a RugbyPass Super Rugby Aotearoa season pass for subscribers in the UK, Ireland, France, Singapore and other territories across the world.
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