'He's towelled up a few guys at training': Returning All Black ready for major set-piece battle
New Zealand’s propping stocks have just received a huge boost with Atu Moli back on deck for the Chiefs this weekend.
Moli, who captained the New Zealand Under 20s in their successful 2015 campaign, made his All Blacks debut in 2017 but had to sit out the majority of the following year due to a serious haematoma.
He made his return to action in 2019 and was selected for the Rugby World Cup in Japan where he played two matches.
Major hip surgery followed in 2020 but the 25-year-old is finally back for the Chiefs and will make his return via the bench against the Brumbies on Saturday.
Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan is understandably excited to bring Moli back into the fold, especially given the torrid time that Moli has endured over the past few years.
“We’re really happy for Atu,” he said following Thursday’s team naming. “He’s had a bit of a treacherous run with injury but he’s maintained a whole lot of positivity and continues to add heaps of value off the field, in and around our environment.
“Now that he’s worked himself back to a point where he can get back out on the field I think is great for everybody and rugby to see.
“It demonstrates a level of professionalism, maturity and understanding that injuries are unfortunately a big part of the pretty physical game that we play. He’s certainly had his fair share but the way you carry yourself under those circumstances tells a lot about the man and obviously, he’s done a great job and it’s been there for everybody to see, both young and old, and he’s set a very good example there.”
If Moli can get himself back into top shape with the Chiefs and Tasman during the NPC, an All Blacks recall is potentially on the cards in the future.
New Zealand aren’t exactly short of depth in the propping department at present, however.
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Joe Moody, Karl Tu’inukuafe and Alex Hodgman were employed by the All Blacks on the loosehead side of the scrum last year while Ofa Tuungafasi, Nepo Laulala and Tyrel Lomax shared the load at tighthead.
Add George Bower, Angus Ta’avao and Aidan Ross into the mix, as well as the talents of youngsters Ethan de Groot and Ollie Norris, and Moli will have his work cut out for him. He does have one advantage over many of his contemporaries, however – the ability to cover both sides of the scrum.
For now, however, Moli will simply be focussing on the tighthead position with the Chiefs – and that’s where he’ll feature on Saturday evening.
“It’s just one step at a time for him,” McMillan said. “He’s sort of trained with us over the last six or seven weeks at tighthead and it’s really through Gus pulling up with a bit of a join strain from the middle of the game last week that has opened the door for Atu to come in but it’s timing.
“We’ve been sort of asking the last two or three weeks whether he’s ready to go but he wanted a little bit of time at club rugby. He’s got that and now he’s fizzing.”
Despite the club matches under his belt, returning to action against the Brumbies will still be a massive challenge for Moli.
When the Chiefs played the Crusaders in Christchurch at the beginning of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season, Ta’avao and Ross both made their returns to action and were well and truly dealt to by the Crusaders scrum before returning to their best form in subsequent weeks.
While McMillan isn’t expecting the world from his young charge, he’s also not expecting him to crumble under the pressure.
“We wouldn’t put Atu out there, feed him to the wolves, if we didn’t think he was up to it,” he said “He’s towelled up a few guys at training and that’s a pretty good indicator that he’s good to go.
“He’ll have some rusty moments, he’ll be rusty for sure. We don’t expect to see the Atu of 2018 or 2019 straight away. He’ll build his way back and I think the most important thing is he’s actually back and we celebrate the fact that he gets to put on a Chiefs jersey again.”
While the Chiefs have had to deal with losing a number of players to injury this year, they’ve not been able to welcome too many back. Unsurprisingly, McMillan said the squad were ecstatic when Moli’s name was named for Saturday’s match.
“I go back to a couple of weeks ago when we named all those young guys to play the Blues – hadn’t really seen a team naming like that with the enthusiasm and genuine care and excitement for everyone that took the field and it was a little bit like that today with Liam [Messam] being named to start and Atu coming off the bench. [It] reminded me a lot of that.”
The Chiefs’ match with the Brumbies kicks off at 7:05pm NZT on Saturday evening from Waikato Stadium.
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