Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan is taking this weekend’s clash with the Blues as an opportunity to freshen up his squad ahead of next weekend’s grand final in Christchurch.
The Chiefs are five points clear of the Blues on the Super Rugby Aotearoa table and are guaranteed a spot in the final due to the competition’s tie-break rules. As such, McMillan has made 21 changes to his matchday squad – which must come close to a Super Rugby record.
Just two players remain from last weekend’s win over the Hurricanes, No 8 Pita Gus Sowakula and first five-eighth Bryn Gatland.
Debutants Viliami Taulani and Zane Kapeli will join Sowakula in the loose forwards. Kapeli was a member of last year’s Highlanders squad but never took the field for the southerners, while 24-year-old Taulani made an appearance for the Chiefs during this year’s pre-season.
Ollie Norris and Sione Mafileo will sandwich Bradley Slater in the front row while Samipeni Finau and Josh Lord have been named at lock.
One-test All Black Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi is set to partner Gatland in the halves, with Xavier Roe covering No 9 from the bench.
Last weekend’s sole debutant, Rameka Poihipi, has been entrusted the No 12 jersey and Sean Wainui will captain the squad at centre.
Chiefs regular Shaun Stevenson has been named on the left wing with Bailyn Sullivan set to make his first appearance of the year on the right. Kaleb Trask completes the team at fullback.
There are four more Chiefs debutants in the reserves in the form of Ezekiel Lindenmuth, Tom Florence, Rivez Reihana and Gideon Wrampling. Lindenmuth and Florence have experience at Super Rugby level in the past with Florence earning a solitary cap for the Highlanders last year and Lindenmuth spending two years with the Blues.
There’s experience on the pine with All Blacks Nathan Harris and Liam Messam – who has more caps than the rest of the forwards put together – both set to make an impact later in the match.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 29, 2021
Altogether, the squad features 12 players who have made or will make their first appearances for the Chiefs this year.
The 21 changes are in somewhat of a contrast to the message delivered by assistant coach David Hill earlier this week.
“I don’t think we’re willing to rest anyone,” he said on Tuesday.
“We had a pile of players come in Monday morning ready to play again. So they’re obviously enjoying their rugby, they’re always keen to play and pull on the Chiefs jersey. And, I think playing the Blues, that rivalry has got a few of them pretty excited.
“Our best preparation for a final is actually having a good week this week and putting in a performance we are proud of on the weekend.
“So it’s just a matter of finding the mix for this game. They’re on a four or five-day turnaround having played Sunday afternoon, they’ll be banged up, so we’re looking at putting out a team that can beat them.”
The likes of Richie Mo'unga and Damian McKenzie have started every match for their #SuperRugbyAotearoa sides while developing players have been left holding tackle bags on the sidelines. There are going to be consequences.
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) April 27, 2021
With many of the Chiefs players carrying a heavy load this year after the side suffered two defeats in their opening two matches, Saturday’s clash looms as the first real chance that McMillan has to rest his charges.
Naturally, the top side will be fielded next weekend in the final and the bulk of that team will likely be retained for when the Chiefs take on the three best sides in Australia – the Western Force, Brumbies and Reds – in the three weeks following.
Saturday’s match kicks off at 7:05pm NZT with the first-ever Super Rugby Women’s game taking place at 4:35pm.
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