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Chiefs' dominance sends message to 'nervous' All Blacks

By Tom Vinicombe
Naitoa Ah Kuoi. (Photo by Alan Lee/Photosport)

After 90 minutes of pre-season action on Friday, Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan should be left feeling satisfied that his team is on the right track heading into the inaugural season of Super Rugby Pacific.

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The Chiefs recorded a dominant 61-7 victory, scoring nine tries to one, and 34 squad members were given a run on a balmy evening at Mt Smart Stadium just two weeks out from the opening game of the season.

While the Chiefs produced a few errors here and there, there wasn’t quite the same discontinuity that pre-season matches are normally best known for and the set-piece was especially strong, regardless of which members of the tight five were on the field at any given time.

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From a personnel point of view, starting halfback Cortez Ratima and new recruits Josh Ioane, Tyrone Thompson and Emoni Narawa were perhaps the best performers of the night but there were plenty of strong showings across the board.

All in all, the Chiefs coaching staff will be happy that their first pre-season fixture of 2022 was a step in the right direction – especially with no obvious injuries coming out of the game.

“It was a good little hit-out for the first time of the year,” McMillan said after the match. “More pleasing for us to sort of come through unscathed. We’ve got a history of quite a few dings heading into the season and touch wood we’ve got another [game] next week and we’ll get through that.

“But [it was] pleasing. We’ve been working on some stuff in the off-season. It’s good to see some of that come to fruition today. Thought we defended really well, held them out for long periods of time but still lots to work with.”

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Breakdown infringements did rob the Chiefs of some attacking ball late in the piece and eventually paved the way for Moana Pasifika to score their only try of the evening. In a competitive match in-season, such indiscipline could prove problematic.

“We gave away a lot of penalties around the breakdown,” McMillan said. “Against more organised teams, certainly in the competition, those sorts of back-to-back penalties are going to be the end of you so we need to tidy that up.

“Right across the board I think every team’s going to improve week-to-week and we’ve got to improve quickly [because] the season will be upon us. Nothing stood out as being glaringly good or glaringly bad, just keep grinding away.”

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The scrum was a particular weapon for the Chiefs throughout the course of the match, constantly putting pressure on Moana Pasifika and earning a number of penalties – despite the fact that senior front-rowers Samisoni Taukei’aho, Atunaisa Moli, Angus Ta’avao and Aidan Ross were all absent from the game.

While some of the dominance could potentially be accredited to the relative weakness of Moana Pasifika, it’s still a promising sign given how badly the Chiefs performed at scrum-time in the opening two rounds of last year against the Highlanders and Crusaders.

“We’ve put a big emphasis on our set-piece,” said McMillan. “We started the season relatively slow last year with our set-piece and then it just got better and better and actually became a weapon for us. We wanted to make sure we start the way we intend to finish and tonight was a good start.

“There were a lot of young blokes out there that really stood up and took their opportunity. That’s what we want. We want our All Blacks sitting on the sidelines a little bit nervous about coming back and having to get up to speed quickly and for large periods of tonight, [that would have been the case].”

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With only four of the nine front-rowers on the night actually contracted full-time to the Chiefs, coach McMillan now has the hard job of whittling down his squad for the upcoming trip to Queenstown, where the opening three rounds of the competition will take place.

Earlier this week McMillan indicated that only the core squad would travel south, barring injury replacements, and with the Chiefs utilising over 50 players throughout the pre-season, that means there will need to be some tough call made in the next few days.

“After tonight it’s going to be competitive so we’ll go away and have a good look at the footage,” said McMillan. “For those half a dozen spots that we may need to fill, it’s going to be a tough decision.

“[We’re] gonna be leaving some good players away but as I’ve said in other media forums, Covid will play its part, injury will play its part. Anyone that played out there tonight just needs to be ready when their opportunity comes.”

The Chiefs will take on the Blues next weekend in their final pre-season encounter before kicking off their Super Rugby Pacific campaign against the Highlanders on February 19 in Queenstown.

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