How much of a role new coach Warren Gatland had in the Chiefs’ recruitment process for the upcoming season is anyone’s guess, given how little time he has spent in New Zealand over the last year.
At the bare minimum, you would expect that Gatland had regular discussions with his coaching and recruiting team to ensure a successful return for the former Waikato coach next year.
Regardless, the Chiefs have done well to secure a few key signatures for 2020 – players who could well push on to stake a claim for higher honours down the track (or who have already done so in the past).
There have also been very few exits from the Chiefs for next year – or at least few ones of magnitude. Brodie Retallick will of course leave a huge hole in the squad whilst Taleni Seu has been a solid performer for the Chiefs over the last few years, but both spent most of 2019 on the sidelines thanks to injuries.
In fact, it’s altogether possible that the Chiefs have gained the most from the Super Rugby offseason out of all the New Zealand squads.
All nine players selected to cover the front row have been in action for the Chiefs before.
O’Neill travelled to Europe with the All Blacks in 2018 but didn’t accrue any minutes, then spent all of this season out with injury. Ross was also in the All Blacks frame back in 2018 but suffered a season-ending ankle injury partway through the year which helped pave the way for Karl Tui’nukuafe to make his international debut.
Packing down at hooker will be Nathan Harris, who will be hungry to win back his All Blacks role after losing ground to Liam Coltman and Asafo Aumua this year. Samisoni Taukei’aho could push Harris for the starting role after offering plenty off the bench for most of 2019 and impressing for Waikato.
New signing Bradley Slater earned a handful of caps for the Chiefs this season and has been promoted to a full-time squad member for 2020. He has taken the place of Liam Polwart, who is reportedly taking time out from the game to deal with concussion.
The second row could prove to be either a huge problem or a great boon for the Chiefs. They’ll have to cope without the world’s best lock, but the signing of young Wellington tyro Naitoa Ah Kuoi should alleviate some of the pain.
Ben Te'o is in the move again as he tries to revive his career following his World Cup axing by England's Eddie Jones
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 26, 2019
Ah Kuoi was a superstar for Wellington College during his high school years and made a big impact for the New Zealand Schools side in 2017. Hip surgery kept him out of the game for six months at the start of 2018 and then Ah Kuoi had to deal with a torn medial cruciate ligament and a sprained ankle this year. Ah Kuoi has slowly built his way back up to full fitness, however, and looked solid for Wellington in this year’s Mitre 10 Cup.
It’s a fairly major signing for the Chiefs – and not great news for the Hurricanes, who have often lacked bulk in the second row.
“I had a few offers to move elsewhere,” Ah Kuoi said in 2017, “but in the end I’m too loyal to [Wellington] and it is definitely a dream to play for the Lions and to play for the Hurricanes.”
Evidently, the Chiefs have become a better option for the 196cm second-rower.
Ah Kuoi will be joined by Michael Allardice, who captained the Chiefs at various points throughout this year, as well as Canada captain Tyler Ardron and another youngster in the form of Laghlan McWhannell.
21-year-old McWhannell was a fulltime member of the Chiefs last season was kept off the park due to injuries. He will likely be Ah Kuoi’s primary competitor for the backup locking role in 2020.
All six of those players would be worthy starters but it’s hard to see Cane or Jacobson being left off the teamsheet, providing they are fit.
There will certainly be concerns surrounding Jacobson, who was invalided out of the All Blacks’ World Cup squad thanks to a reoccurrence of concussion symptoms which have plagued his career in recent seasons.
The sole newbie in the loosies is South Africa-born number 8 Dylan Nel. Nel was lured to New Zealand three years ago by Crusaders coach Scott Robertson and accrued a few caps for Canterbury before joining Otago for this year’s Mitre 10 Cup.
Game time may be hard to come by for Nel, given the depth that the Chiefs have, but injuries have become a given in Super Rugby and nine players managed minutes for the Hamilton-based side in 2019.
It's out with the old and in with the new for the Highlanders as they welcome 15 new faces into their side for the 2020 Super Rugby campaign.https://t.co/VBDtkJdCF7
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 12, 2019
Milo-Harris made his provincial debut for Taranaki this year but previously spent time training with Auckland and the Blues. Injuries have prevented his career from taking flight just yet and he’s still unproven at the provincial level, but he’s certainly not a bad option as the third-in-line.
Aaron Cruden’s return to the Chiefs has been appropriately lauded and he will surely take on the playmaker roles for 2020 whilst tutoring Tiaan Falcon (who earned a handful of caps in 2018 but was sidelined this year) and new squad member Kaleb Trask.
Damian McKenzie spent the majority of his time at 10 this year before suffering a season ending ACL injury but he expressed interest at returning to the fullback role.
The midfield is sufficiently stacked for the Chiefs, especially with the inclusion of All Black in waiting Quinn Tupaea. It would not be a major surprise to see Tupaea dropped straight in the deep end to partner up with Anton Lienert-Brown in the centres.
Between McKenzie, Solomon Alaimalo and Shaun Stevenson, there are no question marks over the outside backs. Kini Naholo, younger brother of former All Black Waisake, is a promising pick up but has been selected more on potential than performance to date.
Former All Black Andrew Mehrtens believes that New Zealand needs to cut ties with South Africa and get more involved with Asia:
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now