Colin Cooper’s Chiefs will be hoping for a healthy 2019 and will be looking to push for a third Super Rugby title after enduring a tumultuous 2018 campaign.
The Chiefs learned plenty about themselves in 2018 as injury ravaged the side. Despite missing several key players for significant amounts of time during the season, the Chiefs still made the play-offs for the seventh consecutive year, bowing out to the Hurricanes in Wellington 32-31 during the quarterfinal stage.
Reaching the play-offs last year – and finishing with the second best win-loss record in the competition – was an impressive feat for a side that went through more than most, losing 100 caps of All Black experience in the off-season and losing every prop from their original 38-man squad at some point of the season.
These factors put plenty of pressure on head coach Colin Cooper in his first season at the helm, but Cooper turned that pressure into diamonds when he unearthed All Blacks prop Karl Tu’inukuafe and revitalised the careers of fellow All Blacks prop Angus Ta’avao and cast-aside outside back Sean Wainui – the latter again shaping as important cogs in the Chiefs machine.
The 2019 season will be all about steadying the ship and building on newfound depth in hopes of another play-off run. Strength still remains in a pack led by All Blacks star Brodie Retallick and a strong front row but once again, everything will be centred around the man in the No. 10 shirt, Damian McKenzie.
In his first three seasons of Super Rugby, McKenzie starred as a human Swiss Army knife while operating from fullback, often topping the charts in tries scored, run metres and line breaks as well as points.
Last year saw McKenzie shift to first five-eighth (No.10) full-time where he was eventually named SANZAAR’s Super Rugby Player of the Year for the third successive time. With that experience under his belt, the Chiefs should be able to take another step forward in 2019.
McKenzie’s elite ability with ball in hand and continually refined skill as a playmaker makes the Chiefs a threat to score whenever they have the ball, and his presence alone will make sure the side remains a contender.
Another year in the saddle will only make the side better as McKenzie continues to forge a partnership with halfbacks Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi and Brad Weber, with the former likely to see an increased role after becoming an All Black at the end of 2018.
The 2018-19 off-season was kinder to the Chiefs than the year prior, with key losses including the aforementioned Tu’inukuafe, longtime leader and loose forward Liam Messam and midfielders Johnny Fa’auli and Charlie Ngatai.
Perhaps the biggest loss the side suffered came in the form of co-captain Sam Cane. The veteran All Blacks loose forward broke his neck in October and will at best feature at the tail end of the season.
However, the loss of Cane could prove to be a big gain for another player – just like the loss of almost every prop last season found two new All Blacks in Tu’inukuafe and Ta’avao – with emerging loose forwards Mitchell Karpik and Lachlan Boshier ready to put their respective hands up. Second-year forward Luke Jacobson will also be pushing for a starting spot on the blindside after a few long months away from the game through injury, as will the versatile Taleni Seu.
While plenty of experience has been lost once more, some of the exciting youth stepping into the side will give fans a sigh of relief and a reason to be hopeful in 2019.
23-year-old Reuben O’Neill – a member of the 51-man All Blacks squad that toured Japan – joins an enviable propping core that will be aided by the return of All Black Atu Moli, who missed all but one match last year after complications with a quad haematoma.
The biggest question will be who joins Anton Lienert-Brown in the midfield, though the Chiefs have added a couple of players who can fill the role admirably.
Former Rebels playmaker Jack Debreczeni joins the side after a resurgent season with Northland in the Mitre 10 Cup and provides versatility across the backline and a booming punt, while Auckland back Tumua Manu is a sound addition to the midfield after a strong provincial campaign.
Former New Zealand Under-20 representative Bailyn Sullivan joins the squad full-time after making his debut last season to further bolster the backline, and 21-year-old Alex Nankivell shapes as another candidate to fill the midfield role after missing the 2018 season through injury.
All eyes will be on the highly-touted former schoolboy sensation Etene Nanai-Seturo, who steps up to Super Rugby after a stint with the New Zealand Sevens team and a few cameo appearances for Counties Manukau. 19-year-old Nanai-Seturo has an aura of X-Factor around him and will likely link up with last year’s breakout star, Solomon Alaimalo, and Shaun Stevenson in the back three to complete an exciting young backline.
The Chiefs will remain one of the competition’s best in 2019 led by Damian McKenzie and Brodie Retallick in what could be a temporary swansong and will be pushing hard for a finals place in Colin Cooper’s second year in charge. Cooper has also notably expanded his already impressive staff to include former Chief Roger Randle, who helped transform Waikato into a Championship-winning attacking threat in 2018.
The New Zealand conference will be tougher this year with the Blues making strides and the Hurricanes and Crusaders a consistent threat, but with one of the best young cores in Super Rugby, the Chiefs definitely look fit to contend in 2019.
New Zealand Conference Placing: Third
Player of the Year: Damian McKenzie
Rookie of the Year: Etene Nanai-Seturo
Breakout Player: Mitchell Karpik
Best Signing: Reuben O’Neill
Super Rugby Placing: Semifinalists
Best finish: Champions in 2012 and 2013
Worst finish: Eleventh in 2010
In: Reuben O’Neill (Taranaki), Laghlan McWhannell (Waikato), Jack Debreczini (Rebels), Tumua Manu (Blues), Ataata Moeakiola (Japan), Etene Nanai-Seturo (Counties Manukau).
Out: Mitchell Graham (Taranaki), Sam Prattley (Sunwolves), Jeff Thwaites (Bay of Plenty), Karl Tu’inukuafe (Blues), Dominic Bird (Racing 92), Matt Matich (Northland), Liam Messam (Toulon), Jesse Parete (Taranaki), Luteru Laulala (Counties Manukau), Johnny Fa’auli (Toshiba Brave Lupus), Charlie Ngatai (Lyon), Regan Verney (Northland), Levi Aumua (Blues), Tim Nanai-Williams (Clermont), Declan O’Donnell (Waikato), Toni Pulu (Brumbies).
Squad: Kane Hames, Aidan Ross, Reuben O’Neill, Nepo Laulala, Atu Moli, Sosefo Kautai, Angus Ta’avao, Nathan Harris, Liam Polwart, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Brodie Retallick, Tyler Ardron, Laghlan McWhannell, Michael Allardice, Fin Hoeata, Mitchell Brown, Taleni Seu, Sam Cane, Mitchell Karpik, Lachlan Boshier, Luke Jacobson, Pita Gus Sowakula, Brad Weber, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Jonathan Taumateine, Damian McKenzie, Tiaan Falcon, Jack Debreczeni, Alex Nankivell, Anton Lienert-Brown, Tumua Manu, Bailyn Sullivan, Solomon Alaimalo, Sean Wainui, Ataata Moeakiola, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Shaun Stevenson, Marty McKenzie.
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