Chiefs' ever-improving locking depth set for huge boost once Brodie Retallick returns to the fold
Less than 12 months ago, the Chiefs were struggling through their almost annual issues in the second row.
‘Chiefs’ and ‘locking crisis’ are two phrases that seem destined to intertwine throughout the rest of time, with the Waikato side rarely seeming to have full access to their stocks.
Injury plays a massive role in that, with the likes of Tyler Ardon, Michael Allardice, Mitch Brown and Laghlan McWhannell all spending countless matches on the sidelines for the Chiefs in the past few years.
Their absences have been amplified throughout 2020 and 2021 due to Brodie Retallick’s ongoing sabbatical in Japan.
The silver lining to the situation, however, is that the Chiefs will have some unprecedented depth in the second row once Retallick is back on the park.
The 2014 World Rugby Player of the Year has returned to New Zealand and is currently in quarantine following the Kobelco Steeler’s loss in the semi-final stages of Japan’s Top League. While he’s unlikely to feature in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman this year, he’ll find the Chiefs have unearthed some exceptional talents when he eventually joins the team ahead of next year’s campaign.
21-year-old Tupou Vaa’i was the big mover last year, going from part-time labourer to All Black in the space of a few months. His performances this season have been head and shoulders ahead of what he was producing in 2020, however, and his form puts him up there with New Zealand’s most experienced second-rowers.
Naitoa Ah Kuoi, also 21, was another addition last season, joining the team from Wellington, and has emerged as the perfect foil to Vaa’i, excelling in defence and over the ball.
Now, Taranki 20-year-old Josh Lord is putting in some big shifts due to the injury-enforced absences of Ah Kuoi and Brown and has left Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan thoroughly impressed with the cattle he has access to.
“Lordy and all the younger guys that are getting way more minutes than what anybody ever anticipated coming into the season is first and foremost proving that they deserve to be here,” McMillan said following the Chiefs’ win over the Brumbies on Saturday.
“For us, it’s fantastic because they’re learning some massive lessons, they’re having to go big minutes and we get some value out of it now and we’re certainly going to get some value out of it in the future.”
Brodie Retallick, one of the greatest players in rugby history, is weighing up his future.
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) February 8, 2021
While the Chiefs’ locking depths are being tested, it will leave them in excellent stead for seasons to come, especially if Retallick calls time on his Super Rugby career after 2023, as the big lock previously indicated to The XV.
“I’m looking forward to, if all goes to plan, getting back to the All Blacks and playing two seasons for the Chiefs,” he said. “Realistically, they’ll probably be the last couple in New Zealand before I decide what I’ll do next, whether that’s hanging up the boots or maybe coming back to Japan.”
Ah Kuoi’s and Brown’s injuries could potentially open the door for Retallick to make an early return to action but that seems unlikely at this stage.
Vaa’i also left the park early on Saturday but McMillan is optimistic he’ll be available for selection for next weekend’s clash with the Reds.
“He got a poke in the eye, really couldn’t see out of it much for the last 10 minutes of the half,” McMillan said. “I don’t think that’ll be something that’s going to keep him out for a long time but obviously it affected him enough today to make the change.”
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