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'He's the talk of the town': Clayton McMillan's message for Chiefs loosie

By Tom Vinicombe
Pita Gus Sowakula. (Photo by Chris Symes/Photosport)

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It didn’t happen immediately, but the Chiefs were able to eventually cut loose on Saturday night and rack up eight tries against Moana Pasifika in South Auckland, scoring a handy 59-12 victory.

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The Chiefs scored nine tries throughout the match and each and every player on the park had a highlight or two to their name by the end of 80 minutes.

Chiefs head coach Clayton McMillan was unsurprisingly pleased with his team’s effort, given that the Chiefs had been shorn of 17 players prior to the squad announcement on Thursday and a further two men before kick-off on Saturday evening.

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While Moana Pasifika are admittedly a new side and still finding their feet, the Crusaders only managed to scrape a bonus point try in the dying moments of their match-up with the Pacific Islanders two weeks ago whereas the Chiefs had theirs all but locked in shortly after halftime when Tupou Vaa’i and Pita Gus Sowakula grabbed a try apiece.

McMillan was full of praise for those two key loose forwards following the match, with their performances up front helping to pave the way for the big victory.

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Vaa’i, playing once again in the relatively unfamiliar blindside flanker role, was still used regularly in the lineouts and showed off his undeniable athleticism in the win with his fend-and-run securing the Chiefs’ fifth try of the night. It’s a role that Vaa’i could get plenty of time in this year with the Chiefs boasting five excellent locking options, including three All Blacks.

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“I have to have a look at the tape again but my initial thoughts were Tupou was probably the best player on the park,” McMillan said post-match. “He was sound at set-piece but just his carry – he’s a dynamic athlete and he’s always sort of struck me as the sort of person who has a profile that could play 6.

“We want to be in a position where at some stage we can put out our best 23 and sometimes that means that you might have to play a person out of position in order to get your best players out on the park. He’s certainly one of those guys.”

Sowakula, meanwhile, continued his rich vein of form which has seen many suggesting the Fijian-born 27-year-old could be in line for an All Blacks call-up later this year. While his try in the 60th minute was well-taken after some repeated drives at the line from the forwards, it was high brilliant offload to Jonah Lowe shortly after halftime that was perhaps the highlight of the night.

“He just gets better with more rugby,” said McMillan. “He’s put on some good size – legitimate muscle. He’s carrying really well, he’s fit, so I reckon he’s making every post a winner. He’s got something about him… His strength with ball in hand, he’s fast and he’s powerful, [has a] great skillset.

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“He’s the talk of the town but the challenge for him is to keep reaching those heights and getting better week on week. There’s a long way to go.”

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McMillan revealed that he had originally hoped to bring the big No 8 off the pitch during the second half with Sowkaula shouldering a relatively heavy workload throughout the season so far, starting in all four of the Chiefs’ games to date – but the opportunity never arose.

“I really wanted to bring him off earlier today but Laggy [lock Laghlan McWhannell] cramped up and got sort of forced into changing him. I would have liked to have brought Pita Gus off because he’s had a big workload. [But at least] he seems to thrive, bounces back pretty quick at the front-end of the week.”

With Sam Cane likely back on deck next weekend, the Chiefs already have the makings of a strong loose forward trio – and that’s without factoring in the likes of experienced operators such as Mitch Brown and All Black Luke Jacobson, who McMillan has suggested could be available again for selection in the very near future after not picking up any minutes since the opening round.

“Luke was outstanding for us last year – probably our best player over the course of the season,” McMillan said of the 24-year-old. “He picked up just a small niggly injury against the Highlanders [so] he’s been out. But he’s due to come back and common sense tells us that it will take him a couple of weeks to sort of get going so it may well be that he’s gotta have a bench role or just bide his time. We’ve got a pretty challenging three or four weeks.

“The other side of that is we’re not naive enough to think we’re past our Covid challenges. It probably pays not to get too far ahead of yourself. You just roll up on Monday and see who’s available and start planning from there.”

The Chiefs are scheduled to play the Crusaders in Hamilton next weekend in what will be their first home game of the season.

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