Just where the last 50-matches went is an intriguing question for talented Chiefs utility Shaun Stevenson.
It seems like only yesterday that a fresh-faced Stevenson first brought out the Happy Gilmour post-try celebration.
The 23-year old is still far from the finished product and has some work to do to be a real All Blacks threat, but recent signs say that the Chiefs utility may be approaching something near career-best form.
That can only be an exciting prospect for the Chiefs given Stevenson is locked in for another three years. There is time and opportunity ahead, but to say Stevenson’s ride since making his Super Rugby debut against the Crusaders hasn’t been smooth would be something of a kind description.
That evening in 2016, Stevenson was so nervous that he became sick just moments before running out of the dressing room. It would turn out to be a night of mixed fortune for the then 19-year old, scoring a try to calm his nerves before a shoulder injury struck, resulting in a long wait for the next opportunity.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 18, 2020
In many ways, Stevenson’s debut encapsulated the journey that the then 19-year old would forge in Super Rugby.
Stevenson had been fast-tracked into the Chiefs environment due to injuries to other outside backs that year but his impressive showings for Waikato in the Mitre 10 Cup had already shown all onlookers his potential.
Dazzling footwork, uncanny strength, and an ability to pop into places on attack that catches defenders off guard are the core skills that make Stevenson a natural fit for the Chiefs but it’s his ability to finish close to the try line which makes him a hard player to keep out of any match-day XV.
When firing at his best, Stevenson is one of the most exciting players to watch in Super Rugby. His range of talents were on full display at the 2017 Brisbane Global Tens tournament where Stevenson was named MVP in the victorious Chiefs squad, with his try in the final just one example of how good Stevenson had been that weekend in his first real performance of note on the international stage.
Since then, Stevenson has gone on to perform for the Maori All Blacks and has become somewhat of a Mr Reliable for the Chiefs in the past year or two.
Able to play at both fullback and on the wing, Stevenson has regularly been called on to adapt to different positions in his time with the Chiefs.
During the much-discussed move of Damian McKenzie to first five during the Colin Cooper coaching era, Stevenson would regularly switch with Solomon Alaimalo and Sean Wainui to take up position at fullback or on either wing.
Results were mixed, but the potential was always there to see. Earlier in 2020, Stevenson talked of a renewed sense of understanding about using his voice as a core leader in the team, something that wasn’t always natural or comfortable.
“I’ve been in the Chiefs for a while so I need to be a big voice, both from the outside and also when playing in that back three,” Stevenson said.
“Rugby is always a challenging game and the mental side of things is crucial but you’ve also got to play in the moment and do each task as it comes. I’m enjoying myself, it’s a good environment so I try to come in every day with a smile on my face.”
Widely seen as a quality player of the future, the challenge for Stevenson was to be a quality player for the now.
That challenge wasn’t always met in the manner Chiefs coaches would’ve liked, leaving Stevenson missing selection completely or facing the prospect of turning out for development sides, both of which have happened at various times over the past couple of years.
Injuries in between and staunch competition from others in the Chiefs backline all made for one certain reality for Stevenson – make every playing opportunity count and do that by getting involved with ball in hand.
When Stevenson does that, fortunes tend to favour the Chiefs when close to the try line or in need of a line break to spark an attack. Stevenson showed such qualities in the Chiefs’ first hit out in Super Rugby Aotearoa against the Highlanders, despite the narrow loss, being the second-best ball carrier and executing on all but one of his tackles attempted with a couple of line breaks and one near miss on the try line.
Stevenson will start on the right wing in his 50th when the Chiefs run out to an expected strong crowd in Hamilton on Saturday night.
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