Any slim chance the Chiefs had of making a push for the play-offs is all but gone after their Saturday night loss to the Blues.
It’s been a poor season to date for the Waikato men – no thanks to some of the worst Chiefs defence in history coupled with the traditional high injury toll.
The Chiefs have averaged over 32 points conceded per game in 2019 which puts it as their second worst defensive season on record. By year’s end, they will have conceded more points than any Chiefs team prior.
Perhaps having so many absent players has made it difficult to fortify defensive systems. Sam Cane played for the first time this year when he suited up against the Blues. His co-captain, Brodie Retallick, has played only seven out of a possible thirteen games this year. Damian McKenzie has also managed just seven matches and will play no further part in the season. Throw in a couple of rest weeks for the likes of Anton Lienert-Brown and Nathan Harris and you can see why the Chiefs may have struggled at times.
All Blacks and experienced Super Rugby players are always going to be difficult to replace, but there have been questions raised over whether the fill-ins at the Chiefs are up for the task. Between now and the start of the 2020 season, coach Colin Cooper (assuming his contract does not come to a premature end) needs to start getting serious about recruitment.
Injuries are a part of professional sport and finding men who can back up your top performers is an absolute must. There are three positions where the Chiefs will need to find able replacements to complement their top All Blacks.
Perhaps no team in Super Rugby has ever been hit as hard in one position as the Chiefs were in the second row for 2019. Retallick has spent ample time on the sidelines this year and for a decent period has been joined by stand-in skipper Michael Allardice. Allardice has been available for eight games this year.
Along with the first-choice pairing being absent, Fin Hoeata hasn’t featured at all in 2019 (and missed 2018 with an ACL injury) and Laghlan McWhannell has also missed the whole season.
Hoeata and McWhannell represented New Zealand at the under-20’s level in 2016 and 2018 respectively, so both obviously have plenty of potential to bring to the side.
The slew of injuries faced in the second row has seen loose forwards Tyler Ardron, Mitchell Brown and Jesse Parete start matches in the 4 and 5 jerseys. While the three may have the skills needed to play at lock, they’re all listed between 1.94 and 1.96 metres tall, putting them well below the height needed to play in the second row.
Even ignoring injuries, having only two players with Super Rugby caps to call on in the second row is far from ideal – especially when the backups have only a couple of dozen provincial caps between them.
How Waikato lock James Tucker missed out on a contract for the Chiefs remains somewhat of a mystery. Tucker played a huge role in Waikato’s successful run for Championship glory in 2018 and has earned 34 caps since debuting back in 2015. Being able to call on an industrious player like Tucker would add both experience and aerial prowess that the Chiefs would benefit from in the pack when senior players are unavailable.
Damian McKenzie, Tiann Falcon and Jack Debreczeni were the Chiefs designated first fives when the squad was first announced back in October.
McKenzie spent three games in the 10 jersey at the start of the season before it was decided that his skills could be better used at fullback. McKenzie had yet to make a return to the playmaker role when he was stretchered off the field in week 9 of the competition.
Falcon has missed the whole season after rupturing his Achilles tendon and Debreczeni has taken the field just three times due to a number of medical issues, amassing 77 minutes of play time.
Marty McKenzie, the only original squad member of that trio, burst onto the scene as a seventeen-year-old for Southland after starring the age-group scene. He played in the 2012 Under 20 World Cup and made his Super Rugby debut for the Blues in 2013. It’s fair to say that expectations of McKenzie were very high after he spent his final two years of high school representing Cantebury’s Christ’s College.
Since his initial provincial and Super Rugby debuts however, McKenzie has not kicked on. While there’s plenty of like about the older McKenzie brother, he simply does not have the skills and temperament to guide a Super Rugby team to a championship. McKenzie has been a handy player for Taranaki for a number of years, but even there he’s found himself playing second-fiddle to young Stephen Perofeta in recent seasons.
Debreczeni, although he has not had the opportunity to present his worth, is probably the most natural of the first fives in the squad, with a killer cut-out pass, but has still only had middling success for Australian Super Rugby sides in recent times. To be blunt, if you’ve spent five seasons playing in Australia at first-five and you haven’t cracked the national side, you’re probably not going to make a big splash in a New Zealand team either.
When Cooper took over as Chiefs coach in 2018 there must have been some part of him that realised Damian McKenzie might not be best utilised at first five. Although he the skills to play at 10, McKenzie benefits so much from having wide open spaces to play with – something not on offer when you’re in the thick of the action at flyhalf. Cooper opted for only the two McKenzie brothers and Falcon as 10 cover, however.
Falcon, like the two McKenzie brothers, was selected for Super Rugby based more on what he could offer in the future than what he’s proven to be capable of in the past. Sometimes that pays off (in Damian’s case), sometimes things don’t quite work out – you can never be certain. Regardless of whether Falcon comes of age in the future, however, he’s not a Super Rugby starter just yet – so where is the safe pair of hands that the Chiefs needed when Damian McKenzie wasn’t guiding the team from 10?
Sevu Reece was one of the stars of the 2018 provincial season. He topped the try-scoring charts with 14 touchdowns to his name – the most by any player since Hosea Gear scored the same number way back in 2008.
Reece’s hot season didn’t come out of nowhere, however. He first debuted for Waikato in 2016 and played almost every game for them on the wing in their next two seasons. After spending three years under development for Waikato, 2019 should have been the season he stepped up to Super Rugby and started terrorising players from outside of New Zealand.
Reece was deemed surplus to requirements, with young Japanese winger Ataata Moeakiola instead specifically sought out by coach Cooper. Moeakiola, who is not eligible for the All Blacks has now chalked up 367 minutes for the Chiefs. In that time, he’s scored 3 tries, beaten 17 defenders, made 5 clean breaks, assisted in 5 tries and passed the ball 11 times. He’s tackling at a 69% success rate.
Compare that with Reece: 346 minutes played, 9 tries, 32 defenders beaten, 21 clean breaks, 16 try assists, 32 passes and a tackle success rate of 83%.
Also on hand is Taranaki midfielder Sean Wainui who has at times done a commendable job on the wing for the Chiefs over the last two years – but he’s very much a stop-gap player who would not find selection at any of New Zealand’s other franchises. Wainui was signed part-way through last year until the end of 2020.
In Shaun Stevenson and Solomon Alaimalo, the Chiefs have two young, promising outside backs – but they both look devoid of confidence in 2019. Alaimalo emerged as a potential All Blacks bolter last year but looks a long way off now – though he hasn’t been helped by some early season injuries.
Hopefully, with some regular game time for their provincial sides, both players will bounce back for 2020. With Etene Nanai-Seturo also on the books, the Chiefs can field a strong top trio – especially if McKenzie remains at fullback.
That doesn’t mean there’s not some space for recruitment, however. Cooper’s number one goal should be trying to convince Reece to return to the Waikato for Super Rugby – though that may be a hard ask.
There’s no doubt about it that the Chiefs have been hit exceptionally hard by injuries in 2019 – but injuries are at worst the time to bring in a reliable pair of hands and hope that the healthy starters can carry the team, and at best an opportunity to test young players with huge upsides. 2019 has been a disappointing season for Chiefs fan – hopefully some key recruiting in the off-season can fix some of this year’s problems.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now