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Chiefs 'never had any conversations' with All Blacks regarding Tupou Vaa'i switch

By Tom Vinicombe
Tupou Vaa'i. (Photo by John Cowpland/Photosport)

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The Chiefs will roll out all three of their All Blacks locks in their starting line-up when they tackle the Blues in Auckland this weekend.

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With Brodie Retallick returning to the franchise this season after a two-year sabbatical in Japan, Tupou Vaa’i earning a national call-up for the first time in 2020 and Josh Lord getting elevated last season, there were plenty of questions heading into the season concerning how Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan would best utilise the second-rowers at his disposal throughout 2022, especially with Naitoa Ah Kuoi also being a key performer for the team over the past two years.

The impressive performance of Laghlan McWhannell in Round 1 against the Highlanders – when he partnered Retallick – looked to have made things even more complicated for McMillan.

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Against the Blues, however, the Chiefs coach has managed to fit all three of his All Blacks second-rowers in the starting XV by playing Vaa’i on the blindside flank. With Ah Kuoi on the bench, McWhannell is the unlucky man who misses out – but that might only be temporary, according to McMillan.

“Laghlan McWhannell, I thought he was one of our best players against the Highlanders but he just misses out purely because we just need to get minutes under the other boys,” McMillan said after announcing his side on Thursday. “The guys that are playing this week, their job is to do such a good job that it makes it hard for Laggy to get back in there, which they’ll have to perform pretty well to do that.”

 

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While McMillan has every confidence that Vaa’i can perform well in the No 6 jersey despite never playing a professional match in that position, the decision wasn’t born entirely out of the need to get all his top players on the paddock, although that did come into it.

“It’s just really the fact that you’ve got Mitch Brown, Simon Parker, Samipeni Finau and Luke Jacobson sitting on the sidelines,” McMillan said. “We’ve probably been forced into that a little bit but it’s gonna provide us with another option [moving forward], assuming it goes well.

“The other part of it is we’ve got five really good locks and we haven’t had the opportunity to play them all so we need to get some minutes into them and we’ve got a big few weeks ahead of us. So that’s one way we can get them all out on the park.”

At one stage last year, deep into the All Blacks’ third Bledisloe Cup encounter with the Wallabies, the coaches asked Vaa’i to take over on the blindside flank but the more experienced Scott Barrett pulled rank and slotted into the role, with Vaa’i taking his customary spot at lock. McMillan confirmed he had “never had any conversations” with the national selectors, however, and that the decision to shift Vaa’i there for Saturday’s match was his and his alone.

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While the injury situation provides Vaa’i with his first opportunity to earn some game-time this year, it’s not ideal for the Chiefs to have now lost All Black Jacobson to the list of absentee flankers. McMillan suggested that the 24-year-old shouldn’t be sidelined for too long, after coming off the field at halftime during the Round 1 clash with the Highlanders.

“He’s just got a minor knee strain,” McMillan said. “He got stepped by a fleet-footed back, I think, against the Highlanders and tweaked it. Again, just being conservative with him. It’ll be three to four weeks, I’d imagine.

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Two further All Blacks, Samisoni Taukei’aho and Anton Lienert-Brown, are also set for their first appearances of the season on Saturday. The former – who was perhaps the biggest mover on the national circuit last season – will start in the No 2 jersey while the latter will join the fray off the bench.

Other changes to the squad from the opening round see Etene Nanai-Seturo take over from Jonah Lowe on the left wing and Chase Tiatia slot in at fullback ahead of Emoni Narawa, with both Lowe and Narawa absent from the 23 altogether. The return of the experienced Aidan Ross should also add some extra starch to the front row with Ollie Norris dropping to the reserves in place of Atunaisa Moli.

Coach McMillan hinted that the internal squad game played during the off-week may have played a role in some of those selections.

“We would have loved to play Moana [Pasifika] to kick off their season in Queenstown,” McMillan said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be … It would have given us an opportunity to play a couple of guys so that we would have given the balance of our squad a run over the first couple of weeks.

“But equally, we made the most of that week. We freshened up but we also had an internal hit-out which was pretty brutal and there’s actually a couple of guys that stood out and they forced their way into the match-day 23 as a result so it was worthwhile.”

Saturday’s match kicks off at 4:35pm NZT from Eden Park.

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