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Clayton McMillan explains the puzzle that is the Chiefs backline

By Tom Vinicombe
Josh Ioane. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

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With Covid still having an influence on proceedings, it’s no major surprise that Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan has had to regularly tinker with his match-day line-up this year.

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Last season, changes from one week to another were rather minimal – except when the Chiefs played a dead-rubber fixture with the Blues at the tail-end of the season. In 2022, however, it’s been almost impossible to roll out the same side from one game to the next.  In fact, just two players – Quinn Tupaea and Alex Nankivell – will have featured in all six games this season, once this weekend’s match with the Hurricanes rolls around.

Some of that simply comes down to who’s available for selection each week, with Covid certainly causing a few headaches for McMillan, who watched last weekend’s loss to the Crusaders from his couch at home due to that very issue.

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McMillan has also acknowledged time and time again, however, that it’s going to take more than just fifteen top players to take out the Super Rugby Pacific title this year and that simple fact has manifested itself in some changes to the line-up for Sunday’s clash.

After spending the first two fixtures on the bench behind Josh Ioane, Bryn Gatland was given the reins at No 10 for the Chiefs’ three most recent matches and generally played with confidence and vigour. Gatland, however, finds himself back in the reserves this week with Ioane once again tasked with steering the ship at first five.

 

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“Josh started the season really well, had a bit of an off-day against the Blues, and then we had a couple of weeks of disruption around Covid and a few injuries. Bryn got his opportunities, took them very well and made the selection around 10 for the last two or three weeks pretty straightforward,” McMillan said of the two pivots. “But Josh has been beavering away in the background and it’s really time for him to get another crack.

“Last year we were probably in a similar situation where [we had] some decent 10s and we’re still fortunate to be in that boat and just gotta keep ticking them over because anything can happen. Could lose somebody to sickness or injury and never have those guys in those driver positions ready to go.”

One such driver is Kaleb Trask, who earned three starts in the No 10 jersey last year before spending the latter half of the season at fullback. An ankle injury kept Trask out of the team for the opening rounds of the competition but the Bay of Plenty playmaker has looked incisive at No 15 over the past two weeks. Unfortunately for Trask, however, he’s now back on the sidelines.

“He’s just rolled his ankle on the weekend,” McMillan said of the 23-year-old. “It’s been a problematic ankle for him and was unfortunate for him because we always find Kaleb gets better with more rugby and managed to string two good games together, saw evidence of him getting better.

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“This is just another setback but it’s not a season-ender or anything like that. He’ll be back.”

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Meanwhile, in the midfield, All Black Anton Lienert-Brown is back on deck and has taken over from Nankivell at outside centre. Instead of dropping Nankivell to the reserves, however, he’s been shifted onto the right wing.

“I reckon he’s been one of our most consistent performers, particularly in the midfield,” said McMillan of Nankivell. “But we want to get Anton out there because he hasn’t played a hell of a lot of rugby so it’s a case of putting him in there and not wanting to lose Alex in the match-day XV. So he moves out to the wing.

“But he’s a great communicator, a great defender and a lot faster than what people probably think. Did a great job down there marking Leicester [Fainga’anuku] at the Crusaders a few weeks back and think he can do a good job against Wes [Goosen].”

Despite losing Brodie Retallick to a broken thumb, the return of Lienert-Brown, as well as gun loose forwards Pita Gus Sowakula and Luke Jacobson means the Chiefs will field as close to a full-strength line-up as at any other stage this season in this Sunday’s derby.

“We’re slowly getting there,” McMillan said. “I mean, you always want to have everyone available so you can select your absolute best side which we haven’t been able to achieve all year but if we can keep getting the majority of them out there and then work our way through Covid, work our way through the little dings, hopefully keep accumulating a few wins and when everyone comes on deck at the back-end of the season, it hopefully really sets us up well to give it a decent charge.

“Getting Pita Gus back, he was in some great form before he had his week off. Anton’s obviously been out for a few more weeks but he demonstrated a couple of weeks ago against the Crusaders that he can get up and get going relatively quickly. He’s keen as bricks to go. We’re happy with the squad we’ve put out this week.”

The Chiefs will take on the Hurricanes at Sky Stadium in Wellington on Sunday afternoon with the match set to kick off at 4:35pm NZT.

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