Were it not for the understandable intervention of Rugby Australia, Wallabies flyhalf James O’Connor could have been donning a Chiefs jersey in the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa competition.
O’Connor approached the Chiefs about signing with the team for next season and if RA and the Reds had played ball, the 30-year-old could have been a replacement for the departed Aaron Cruden in the No 10 jersey.
“James approached us and we were keen to sign him but at the end of the day, we couldn’t get it across the line,” Chiefs CEO Michael Collins confirmed late last week. “It’s an opportunity for another player so we’ve moved on pretty quick.”
The global pandemic has forced a Super Rugby reshuffle for 2021, with the New Zealand and Australian teams set to once again play in separate tournaments before engaging in a six-week trans-Tasman competition.
South Africa and Argentina will again take no part, with the South African sides set to join the Northern Hemisphere’s PRO14 competition as soon as is feasible.
Their departures from Super Rugby means the competition will have considerably less international flavour to it; however, there will still be a number of non-Kiwis and non-Australians taking part.
A slew of Argentinian representatives, including Julian Montoya, Tomas Cubeli and Domingo Miotti have transferred from the Jaguares to the Western Force, along with Ireland international Rob Kearney, ensuring there’ll be some foreign representation in the Super Rugby AU competition.
In New Zealand, the Highlanders have signed Japan international Kazuki Himeno for 2021, a man who was one of the best performers for the quarter-finalists as last year’s Rugby World Cup, as well as Tongan centre Fetuli Paea.
Elsewhere around the country, Manu Samoa captain Michael Alaalatoa will again play a large role for the Crusaders while his fellow Samoa teammates James Lay and Ray Niuia are contracted to the Blues. The Auckland franchise are also reportedly chasing the signature of recent Pumas debutant Sebastian Chocobarres.
The Hurricanes, meanwhile, have Kane Le’aupepe on their books, leaving the Chiefs as the only team in Super Rugby Aotearoa to lack any foreign representatives.
Speaking on Sky Sports’ The Conversation podcast, new Chiefs head coach Clayton McMillan has revealed the international player he’d be most interested in luring to Hamilton – and it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.
“I’d really love if Maro Itoje came to the Chiefs,” said McMillan. “I think he might be able to add a little bit of value.”
"I find if you spend too much time away from the game, whether it only be three or four weeks or three or four months, I think you lose your touch. I think you lose an opportunity to innovate the game." #AllBlackshttps://t.co/6gm6CS2fMo
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 21, 2020
Warren Gatland’s replacement has perhaps understated what Itoje – a man tipped as a possible British and Irish Lions captain next year – might bring to the Chiefs’ cause.
The 2012 and 2013 champions finished dead last in this year’s Aotearoa competition, succumbing to defeat eight times from eight attempts.
Despite the valiant efforts of debutants Tupou Vaa’i and Naitoa Ah Kuoi, plus the slog of loose forward Mitch Brown, the Chiefs were seriously lacking in experienced locking talent thanks to a slew of injuries, coupled with Brodie Retallick’s sabbatical.
It could be a similar story in 2021, with 22-year-old Laghlan McWhannell the oldest second-rower on the Chiefs’ books for the upcoming campaign.
Highlanders coach Tony Brown, meanwhile, said that he’d already secured the major foreign signature he wanted – that of loose forward Himeno. When pushed, Brown admitted that a pair of Japan’s outside backs would also do reasonably well in the free-flowing Aotearoa competition.
“Well it’s Himeno, he’s coming. I’d like to bring [Kotaro] Matsushima and [Kenki] Fukuoka – they’d go pretty good in New Zealand.”
Looking closer to home, McMillan admitted he quite happily poach All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith from the Highlanders (though named new halfback recruit Xavier Roe as the young Chiefs player to watch for 2021) while Brown, himself a former flyhalf, would bring Richie Mo’unga into the Highlanders fold “without hesitation”.
Scott Robertson, who coached the Crusaders to a fourth straight title in 2020, suggested he’d be gunning for the signature of one of the few men to have escaped the Crusaders’ grasp in recent years.
“Well, he’s the only player that’s really left, so Jordie Barrett,” Robertson said. “I’m not sure we could pay him to be fair. Jordie’s been great, he’s been down there, I’d like to have him back.”
Barrett shifted south from Taranaki for university study and made his provincial debut for Canterbury – under the tutelage of Robertson. While the Crusaders pushed hard to keep Barrett in the region, the All Black ultimately headed home and linked up with the Hurricanes, where he’s remained since 2017.
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