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'It's been frustrating for the players and it's been frustrating for the coaches'

By Tom Vinicombe

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Despite injuries taking their usual toll on the Chiefs, head coach Clayton McMillan has typically refrained from making too many changes to his team from week to week.

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The obvious exception came when the Chiefs played their dead-rubber match against the Blues in the final round of the regular Super Rugby Aotearoa season.

McMillan made 21 positional changes for that match, including naming six players to make their Chiefs debuts.

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There’s been relative consistency in the starting lineup throughout the rest of the Waikato-based side’s campaign, however.

Aidan Ross, Samisoni Taukei’aho and Angus Ta’avao have been the preferred front-row while Tupou Vaa’i and Naitoa Ah Kuoi have been the regular selections at lock.

Luke Jacobson has been the preferred starter at number 8 while Mitch Brown and Pita Gus Sowakula have shared the blindside flanker duties, depending on who’s fit at the time. Sam Cane wore No 7 to begin the year while Lachlan Boshier has taken over since the All Blacks captain’s season-ending injury.

This weekend, Ta’avao, Ah Kuoi and Sowakula are all absent from the starting side.

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The former two are both sidelined with injury while Sowakula has dropped to the bench with centurion Liam Messam promoted into the first XV.

Youngster Josh Lord will retain his place from last week’s match in Ah Kuoi’s absence while Sione Mafileo has been promoted to wear the No 3 jersey. Internationals Zane Kapeli and the returning Atu Moli will provide cover from the bench.

“We’re carrying a fairly dinged up squad at the moment,” McMillan said after naming his team for Saturday’s clash with the Brumbies.

“In some positions we’re starting to run pretty thin. The most obvious one is lock, where [regular loose forward] Zane’s been used.”

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Even after factoring in injuries, the consistency hasn’t quite been there in the backs – although halfback Brad Weber and midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown have started most matches in their respective positions.

The other centre position was Quinn Tupaea’s for the early stages of the Chiefs’ campaign before injury forced him to the sidelines and Alex Nankivell stepped into the vacated role.

In the outside backs, however, changes have come by the bucketload.

Damian McKenzie’s regular switching between fullback and first five is just one cause of the constant disruption, but McMillan has also been frustrated that no one has really put their hand up to demand selection with the opportunities they’ve been given.

Former Hurricane Jonah Lowe has been excellent on the both wings and has been called upon whenever fit while Etene Nanai-Seturo’s excellence on attack made up for his sometimes less than savoury defence.

Nanai-Seturo has now linked up with the New Zealand sevens side, however, which has forced McMillan to rethink his selections – and that’s causing a few headaches.

“In the backs, particularly around our back three, for a good portion of the season we’ve seen a little bit of rotation there and it’s been frustrating for the players and it’s been frustrating for the coaches that no one has really taken the opportunity to bang the door down and say, ‘Hey this is my jersey’,” McMillan said.

“It’s not that Shaun [Stevenson] played poorly last week, we’re just searching for that person to put their hand up and say, ‘Hey, I’m the guy’. It’s a little bit of a Ferris wheel there. Hopefully sooner rather than later we settle on a combination.”

It’s Waikato utility back Bailyn Sullivan who will wear the No 14 jersey on the Saturday – for the second time this season, after starting in the game against the Blues.

He’s one of three players to suit up on the right wing, alongside Stevenson and Lowe.

This weekend, Lowe will again wear No 11 in Nanai-Seturo’s absence – though the injured Sean Wainui has also been given a chance there this season.

A wild card option for McMillan is 20-year-old Gideon Wrampling, who has been named in the New Zealand Under 20 squad for 2021. Wrampling was handed a debut off the bench against the Blues but hasn’t featured since, but has all the skills necessary to excel at Super Rugby level.

Somewhat ironically, former Chief Solomon Alaimalo – who many considered an All Blacks in waiting – shifted south to the Highlanders at the beginning of the season in the search for more regular game time at fullback but has had few chances to press his claim in Dunedin.

The Chiefs kick off their match with the Brumbies at 7:05pm NZT on Saturday.

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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'It's been frustrating for the players and it's been frustrating for the coaches'

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