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Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan praises 'abrasive' new halfback

By Tom Vinicombe
Cortez Ratima. (Photo by Peter Meecham/Getty Images)

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Getting a win in Christchurch against the Crusaders would be enough to satisfy any opposition coach but Clayton McMillan will be feeling extra pleased with how the Chiefs performed on Saturday night, given the men that weren’t available for the clash.

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Regular starting halves Brad Weber and Josh Ioane were both omitted from the matchday squad, as were top performers in recent weeks such as Sione Mafileo, Laghlan McWhannell and All Black Josh Lord.

Some of those absences were forced due to Covid, with players missing early-week training sessions due to being close contacts of other positive cases. It meant the Chiefs were forced to field a new halves combination of Xavier Roe and Bryn Gatland, while 20-year-old Cortez Ratima and 21-year-old Rivez Reihana were named on the bench.

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While Roe – himself just 23 and making only the second start of his Super Rugby career – was excellent in the opening 50 minutes, keeping the Chiefs attack ticking along nicely and finding good distance with his clearing kicks, it was his Waikato teammate Ratima who stole the show late in the piece.

Ratima entered the fray with half an hour left to play and helped marshall the troops as they scored two late tries to steal a victory from the Crusaders at the death. Almost poetically, Ratima actually turned down the opportunity to sign with the Crusaders this year, instead committing to the team he grew up supporting.

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Ratima, in a similar mould to former Waikato, Chiefs and All Blacks halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow, possesses power that defies his size which he used to great aplomb in Christchurch, fighting off the advances of Crusaders forwards on a handful of occasions. His sharp pass from the ruck also gave the Chiefs the quick ball they needed to spin it wide and send Shaun Stevenson and Rameka Poihipi over for the late-game tries.

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Following the match, McMillan acknowledged that co-captain Weber was free to play in the match after getting the all-clear late in the week but the Chiefs wanted to show faith in the young stand-ins, despite the fact they were playing the table-topping Crusaders in Christchurch – where they’d not managed a win in six years.

“I think the first part is just [that] he get confidence from knowing we’ve got confidence in him,” McMillan said of the young scrumhalf’s performance. “Like the Crusaders, we were affected by Covid and Brad was somebody that, if we really wanted to, we could have put into our 23 but we wanted to demonstrate to our squad that if you want to be a contender in the competition, you need to have faith in your whole squad and they’re all gonna have to step up at different times.

“We resisted the temptation to [bring Weber in] and Cortez went out there and I thought he controlled that game really well in the last 10 minutes. He’s abrasive, he’s got that ability to carry when nothing else is on and buy ourselves a little bit of time. I thought he was great and he’s another one that will learn massively from the experience.”

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The strong performances from both Roe and Ratima means McMillan has the hard task of finding minutes for both young halfbacks during the season but with at least 11 matches still to play, both are likely to have ample opportunities, especially once the trans-Tasman fixtures kick off later in the season.

Waikato prop George Dyer – who has ostensibly taken the injured Ruben O’Neill’s spot in the squad – also came off the pine to make his debut and competed strongly with Crusaders newbie Abraham Pole while Rivez Reihana, loose forward Tom Florence and utility Rameka Poihipi earned their second, third and fifths caps, respectively.

Next week, the Chiefs are set to face the Hurricanes in Wellington before playing their first home game of the season – a repeat fixture with the Crusaders – to round out the month.

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