'Bryn played better': How the Chiefs decided on their playmaking combo for their grand final showdown with the Crusaders
The last time that the Chiefs played the Crusaders, coach Clayton McMillan made the somewhat surprising call to start pocket-rocket Damian McKenize at first five-eighth.
On the back of some excellent shifts in that role in the latter stages of matches, McMillan decided that regular fullback McKenzie was the man to guide the Chiefs around the park right from the get-go, and the All Blacks utility helped the Chiefs fight out a narrow 26-25 victory in Hamilton.
McKenzie was returned to his customary No 15 jersey in the subsequent match, however, with Bryn Gatland elevated from the bench to start at first five. That’s a combination that’s now been retained for the ultimate match of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season against the Crusaders in Christchurch, despite the success the Chiefs had last time they faced up to the Crusaders with McKenzie at 10.
It’s the same horses for courses approach that the interim coach has taken throughout the year, with McMillan suggesting that the Crusaders of now are not the same team they were earlier in the season, while the wintery conditions in Christchurch will also force a shift in tactics from the Chiefs.
“There’s pros and cons, isn’t there?” McMillan said of the shift. “He’s going to do a great job wherever we put him. He’s proved that.
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“We’re just anticipating that down in Christchurch it’s a little bit more in the winter months now. It’ll be dewy, it’ll be cold. Potential for rain. So the tactical battle is going to be really important. Having both Bryn and Damo there, I think serves us well in that regard.
“Equally I think that the Crusaders are going to kick a lot more than what they have. We saw them sort of transition to that against the Blues last week and Damo’s by far and away the best man under the ball. Really composed and brave so there’s a little bit of that in the selection as well.
“We’re playing slightly different. They’re playing slightly different.”
While it’s not a huge surprise to see McKenzie wearing his favoured No 15 jersey, Gatland’s return to the first five role late in the season may have raised a few eyebrows.
After confident displays in the opening two matches of the season – but two matches that saw the Chiefs’ extend their ongoing losing streak – Gatland was dropped in favour of Bay of Plenty 22-year-old Kaleb Trask.
"You want to get stuck in but it’s in a respectful way. You’re just trying to get in there – and you have to, because they’re a bloody good side and they’ve been that way for so long now."@LiamMessam's latest column for @TheXV. #CRUvCHIhttps://t.co/JzIYaJh1bQ
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) May 7, 2021
Trask took a knock partway through the campaign, however, and after three runs at No 10 on the trot, his only action since the Chiefs’ win over the Highlanders in Round 7 came in last weekend’s dead-rubber game against the Blues.
Trask played at fullback in that fixture and while McMillan suggested that he had the opportunity to force his way back into the team for the final, he didn’t do enough to warrant selection ahead of Gatland or Chase Tiatia in the matchday 23.
“We were looking hard at Kaleb last week in the Blues game,” McMillan said. “It was his opportunity to sort of put his foot best foot forward as a fullback to see what that looked like.
“He had some good moments and some not so good ones and Bryn played better. That’s one of the reasons why he missed out this week.
“He’s a young man, he’s going to get plenty more opportunities moving forward. He’s accepted the reasons why he’s not playing and he’s been outstanding in helping prepare the other two as best as he can this week.”
With Tiatia likely to take over at fullback at some stage during the second half of Saturday’s match, McKenzie will almost certainly slot in at first receiver.
If the Chiefs are to have any chance of securing a victory over the home team, who have not lost a playoff match in Christchurch in 24 fixtures, Gatland and McKenzie will both need to be in top form.
Perhaps that will mean McKenzie needs to step up in the dying moments of the game, as he has on multiple occasions already this year, and slot the winning points.
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