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Moana Pasifika thumping puts 'serious heat' on Chiefs coaches

By Tom Vinicombe
Clayton McMillan. (Photo by John Davidson/Photosport)

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An injury and Covid-depleted Chiefs side have overcome adversity to record their highest-equal try tally in a match in their 52-12 win over Moana Pasifika on Saturday night.

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The Chiefs scored nine tries in all with six of those coming in the second half when a number of inexperienced players took the field, including uncapped front-rowers Tyrone Thompson and Solomone Tukuafu.

While head coach Clayton McMillan revealed on Thursday that 17 players were unavailable for Saturday’s fixture, there were further disruptions in the build-up to the match with midfielder Rameka Poihipi and reserve lock Naitoa Ah Kuoi also finding themselves invalided from the clash.

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“We tested again on Thursday night [or] Friday morning and we had another couple that showed up, everyone else was clean,” McMillan said. “We were able to deal with that. 17 became 19 and that doesn’t include a handful of others that had it the week [before] or a couple of weeks back.

“Slowly [Covid is] making its way through our squad but thankfully not at the rate that other teams have been hit.”

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The Chiefs still boasted plenty of proven performers amongst their match-day squad with All Blacks Brodie Retallick, Tupou Vaa’i, Brad Weber and Quinn Tupaea all on deck as well as a slew of long-term Super Rugby servants. Still, McMillan used the absences to help galvanise the team against a Moana Pasifika side desperate for game time and a point to prove after missing out on the action in three of the opening four rounds.

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“As a coach, you sell the dream to the players around, ‘Hey look, we’ve had a bit of disruption but we’ve got to rise about that and we back our squad’ – and we wholeheartedly believe that,” McMillan said following the victory.

“At the end of the day, we definitely had some challenges. Right up until Thursday, the game could have quite easily been cancelled or given to another team but we were really committed to wanting to play this team because we felt like we had the numbers. We were comfortable that we had enough depth in the critical positions – except halfback [with just Weber available from the original squad], so rolled the dice there a little bit.

“Thankfully we still had a lot of experience in our team but I thought Moana presented some real challenges early on, which you expect. They’ve been away behind closed doors, they’re a passionate team, they showed what they were capable of against the Crusaders, they’re playing back at home – there would have been a lot of excitement in camp and you saw that through their efforts in the first sort of 35, 40 minutes.

“But we were confident that if we didn’t get too loose in our game, we just applied pressure through our set-piece, worked hard on D, stayed disciplined, didn’t give them any easy piggy-backs into our half that eventually we’d be able to wear them down and that sort of came to fruition. It was pleasing because when the game opened up a little bit towards the end, there’s always a tendency to start overplaying your hand and a number of times we scored off just being ball-tough and just going that one extra phase and not forcing our hand so I thought that part was particularly pleasing.”

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While McMillan and his fellow coaches will be pleased to escape the game with a bonus-point victory – taking them to 5th on the overall ladder – and no injuries to speak of, the opportunity to hand decent minutes to some of the squad’s fringe members was also a major positive to take from the game.

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Thompson, Tukuafu and Hamilton Burr earned their first Super Rugby caps while Kaleb Trask and Samipeni Finau made their first appearances of the season. Atunaisa Moli and Rivez Reihana also got some rare game time off the bench.

McMillan says that the fixture gave the selectors the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are and prove to the younger members of their squad that they have full confidence in the whole team.

“We get challenged as coaches because we say to our players, ‘We back each and every one of you and when you get your opportunity, you’ve just got to step up to the mark’ and we got forced into that this week,” he said.

“We don’t want to be in this situation, it’s been forced upon us [but] what that has done is it has afforded some young players opportunities that they might have had to wait a little bit longer for. But they got it early and nearly all of them have stood up tonight [and] last week under some extreme pressure [against the Crusaders in Christchurch].

“That’s fantastic for our squad moving forward and starting to put some serious heat on us as coaches to be able to select the matchday 23 when we get to the point where everybody’s fit and available for selection.”

With everyone pulling their weight on Saturday night – both young and old, inexperienced and long in the tooth – the Chiefs were able to continue their strong start to the season and bank some important points as they enter a tough period where they’ll face the Crusaders, Highlanders and Blues over successive weekends.

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