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The same issue has plagued the Chiefs for a second season in a row

By Tom Vinicombe
Emoni Narawa and Jonah Lowe. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

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While they may have finished the regular season as the third-seeded side in Super Rugby Pacific, the harsh truth is that it would have taken a massive dose of luck for the Chiefs to ever take home the crown based on their performances throughout the season.

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Blame injuries, blame the pandemic – whatever the cause, the Chiefs lacked the consistency and attacking penetration they needed to seriously challenge the likes of the Crusaders and the Blues for a title.

The frustrating thing for Chiefs fans will be that they started out the competition looking in fine nick. Normally, sides enter the year on the back of a couple of scrappy pre-season matches and it takes almost a month of action to find their feet. The Chiefs, on the other hand, looked succinct and composed in their warm-up games against Moana Pasifika, the Highlanders and the Blues, and operated like a relatively well-oiled machine when they took on the Highlanders in Queenstown in their opening fixture of Super Rugby Pacific.

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Reacting to the first All Blacks squad of the season.
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Reacting to the first All Blacks squad of the season.

From that point on, however, the Chiefs seems to play beneath themselves. The loss to the Crusaders in the semi-final emphasised their lack of incisiveness with the ball in hand, with the Crusaders having to make 222 tackles and only conceding a solitary try. It was a problem that plagued the Chiefs throughout their campaign; against frail defences the Chiefs were able to bash their forward and accumulate ample points but when teams tightened up and weren’t missing simple one-on-tackles, the line breaks dried up.

Bryn Gatland showed some promise at first five and added more of an attacking edge to his game this year but it only when Josh Ioane was given the No 10 jersey that the Chiefs really looked dangerous in the centre of the park. Unfortunately, Ioane’s appearances in the playmaker role were few and far between with injury and illness curtailing his season.

Without the penetration closer to the ruck, the Chiefs outside backs were given little room to move at the end of the backline, with defences able to shuffle sideways and cut down any chances handed to the likes of Jonah Lowe, Etene Nanai-Seturo and Emoni Narawa.

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Unlike men such as Salesi Rayasi, Mark Telea and Sevu Reece, the Chiefs’ wings simply aren’t capable of creating something out of nothing. Etene Nanai-Seturo had one of his best seasons for the Chiefs to date but still seems ill-suited to the XV-man game – at least in the winger role. The rest of the side’s options are serviceable at best, lacking either the size or strength to really have an impact. Tellingly, Quinn Tupaea was perhaps the Chiefs’ most dangerous winger throughout the season, despite spending just two matches in the outer channels, thanks purely to his ability to run the ball hard and straight.

The Chiefs used to be one of the world’s best counter-attacking sides, especially when they had men like Damian McKenzie and James Lowe operating in tandem. Those days are long gone now, however, and until Clayton McMillan is able to get his mitts on a powerful, pacey winger, the Chiefs are always going to struggle to match it against teams who are happy making tackle after tackle without buckling.

McKenzie will be back in the Waikato next year, of course, and while there’s a good argument for bringing the All Black closer to the action and giving him a full season at first five-eighth, the better option may be to simply entrust him with the No 15 jersey in order to help reignite the Chiefs’ faltering attack.

Even with McKenzie back at fullback, however, the Chiefs are still in need of some dangerous additions in the wider channels – but there’s not likely to be many free-agents roaming around in search of a Super Rugby side. With Wes Goosen leaving the Hurricanes, Rayasi will be expecting an uninterrupted season on the left wing in Wellington despite not having quite as much luck with starting opportunities over the past two years as he would have hoped. Lam looms as a potential target – although the Blues will do everything they can to keep him, even though they already boast the talents of Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea.

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Shaun Stevenson and Gideon Wrampling remaining injury-free won’t hurt the Chiefs’ outside backs stocks but, in all likelihood, McMillan will still need to pick one or two danger-men up from provincial sides – and that might mean swooping early.

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“What you have to remember is everyone’s trying to find the same type of player so some teams have been quicker to pull the trigger,” McMillan told RugbyPass regarding recruitment ahead of the 2022 season. “A few of the guys that we potentially looked at will end up in other teams, that’s just the nature of the beast.

“I’m not the sort of person who will rush into a signing. I want evidence, I want to find out a bit more about the person, be really clear on what they’re going to bring to the environment and sometimes that takes time.”

That’s a sensible approach – but perhaps not what the Chiefs need when the same issue has been ongoing ever since Warren Gatland first took over in 2020 before handing the reins to McMillan. Wrampling and Emoni Narawa were the two additional outside backs recruited for 2022, but neither made much of an impact on the field. Wrampling was out injured the whole season and Narawa never seemed certain whether to use his speed or strength, seemingly struggling to employ either to any major benefit.

“There wasn’t any one individual that really sort of banged the door down last year and said ‘Hey, I’m the guy,’” said McMillan of last year’s outside backs.

“We had lots of guys that were more than adequate that did a great job for us, they’re safe, and what we’re just looking for is people who can potentially bring a little more influence through their performance and the way that they play.”

Now, a year on, the same situation remains – and that might mean rolling a few dice during the NPC.

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