When the Chiefs announced their squad for the 2021 Super Rugby season, they left space in their roster for one additional player.
As revealed last month, the Hamilton-based franchise had hoped to bring Wallabies utility back James O’Connor into the mix. O’Connor, with almost 90 Super Rugby caps under his belt, would have been an experienced addition to complement the loss of former All Blacks first five Aaron Cruden.
Rugby Australia, somewhat understandably, blocked the move – and O’Connor will continue to represent the Queensland Reds.
The decision left the Chiefs one man short, and interim coach Clayton McMillan has now officially confirmed that Canterbury’s Rameka Poihipi has joined the squad.
22-year-old Poihipi was schooled at Hamilton Boys’ High School before making the move down to Christchurch. Throughout his time at school, Poihipi was a regular selection for Chiefs development programmes and eventually went on to play for the New Zealand Secondary Schools Barbarians.
His provincial debut came in 2018, not long after he’d played a one-off match for the Crusaders against the French Barbarians.
Poihipi played at first five in his formative years but has more recently featured in the midfield – which is likely where he’ll be called upon for the Chiefs.
“I am very grateful to be given this opportunity,” Poihipi said. “This team means a lot to me, I have grown up my whole life in the Chiefs Region, living in the Bay of Plenty and going to high school in Hamilton. It’s safe to say that this is a prestigious team I always looked up to and aspired to be a part of.
“Even though I am new to the Gallagher Chiefs, I want to do my best to contribute what I can to the team. I want to make sure I nail my role, whatever that looks like each week. From there I want to compete and learn as much as I can from the world-class coaches and players this place has to offer.”
McMillan, who will step into an assistant role next season upon Warren Gatland’s return from the British and Irish Lions, expects the 22-year-old to have no issues re-acclimatising to the Chiefs set-up.
“Rameka is an intelligent and well-developed athlete and we are fortunate to have him on board for the season,” he said. “He has already demonstrated his value through his versatility, competitiveness and leadership potential.
“Although Rameka has more recently cut his teeth in Canterbury, he was schooled in Hamilton and featured regularly through our Chiefs development pathways. He is familiar with the environment and many of the players, so his transition back here has been pretty seamless.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 28, 2021
While Anton Lienert-Brown is an obvious selection for the Chiefs in the midfield, it’s not clear who will get first shot at partnering the 44-cap All Black.
Alex Nankivell is the most experienced option available while Quin Tupaea was given plenty of opportunities last year in his first season of Super Rugby. Waikato’s Bailyn Sullivan, meanwhile, has featured more often on the wing – but was given little game time in 2020.
Poihipi’s background playing first five may aid his cause, however, especially if the Chiefs opt to run Kaleb Trask or Rivez Reihana in the No 10 jersey, given their relative lack of experience in top-flight rugby.
The Chiefs kick off their Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign one week later than their fellow Kiwi sides due to having a bye in the first round. Their opening match comes on March 5 against the Highlanders in Hamilton.
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