Picking a starting Chiefs team for round one of Super Rugby Pacific
The Chiefs are set to kick off their Super Rugby Pacific season against the Highlanders on February 19 and after last year’s slow start, which almost saw them losing sight of the play-offs just three games into the competition, coach Clayton McMillan will be hoping his charges come racing out of the blocks.
Although the Chiefs boast 10 All Blacks in their ranks from last year’s test season, many of those men played smaller roles in the national side’s lengthy campaign and, as such, may be expected to be ready to suit up for the opening round of the competition. There are also a number of players in the squad whose provincial campaigns were disrupted by injury or Covid, which could also factor into McMillan’s selections for the Round 1 clash.
Perhaps the biggest difficulty in predicting their opening line-up, however, is that there’s so much competition in the team’s ranks. In most positions, there’s little separating the various candidates who will be putting their hands up for starting jerseys. Just last week, McMillan made it clear that pre-season performance will have a big impact on early season selections which means this Friday’s match-up between the Chiefs and Moana Pasifika will be significant.
All that being said, what’s the most likely team, given all the present information available, that the Chiefs will roll out to take on the Highlanders in just over a fortnight’s time?
1. Aidan Ross
While the first game back against the Crusaders was certainly a challenge, Aidan Ross made a very successful return from injury last season after missing most of the action during the 2020 Mitre 10 Cup.
The Australia-born prop was taken to the cleaners by the likes of Michael Alaalatoa and Fletcher Newell after coming off the bench but it was quickly evident that was a product of the 26-year-old taking a bit of time to readjust to the physicality of Super Rugby and come the end of the season, the Chiefs’ scrum was one of the most formidable in the competition. When Karl Tu’inukuafe went down with a shoulder injury early in the test season, Ross was the man the All Blacks called up as cover and while he never took the field for NZ, the experience of being involved with the squad will have been invaluable for the loosehead.
After a strong season with Bay of Plenty, Ross will likely pick up where he left off last season.
2. Bradley Slater
After establishing himself as the Chiefs’ first-choice hooker throughout the 2020 season thanks to his relative dependability at lineout time, Bradley Slater ceded his position to Samisoni Taukei’aho last year and suddenly found himself experiencing the same yips that had plagued Taukei’aho’s season when Slater first took over as the number one No 2.
Taukei’aho, of course, went on to enjoy an excellent campaign with the All Blacks and will again start the season as the Chiefs’ first-choice – but that doesn’t mean he’ll get the first shot come the opening game.
Slater, for his challenges in 2021, is still a solid hooking option and while Taukei’aho enjoyed an extended off-season, Slater was in training with the squad. As such, it shouldn’t surprise if he’s given a start at No 2 in the opening match of the season, and the first opportunity to upset the apple cart.
It’s also worth noting that Slater was a worthy fill-in in the loose forwards for Taranaki during last season’s NPC when the eventual Championship winners were beset by injuries.
3. Sione Mafileo
Last year just two Chiefs were handed starts on the tighthead side of the scrum, Angus Ta’avao and Sione Mafileo. Both of those men are now seriously lacking in recent game time, thanks to North Harbour’s forced absence from the bulk of the NPC, and the limited opportunities Ta’avao was given for the All Blacks in the latter stages of 2021 (primarily due to ongoing injury struggles). As such, it’s likely that whoever is given first shot in the No 3 jersey will enter the game knowing they have the opportunity to stake their claim for an extended run in the jersey.
While Ta’avao now appears to be back on deck for the Chiefs following the summer break, it’s unknown how much training he’s been able to get under his belt thanks to the injuries at the end of last season (although coach McMillan has said that the squad boasts a relatively clean bill of health at present). In that case, Mafileo looms as the most likely man to pack down at tighthead prop to kick off the season and while the former NZ Under 20s representative may not necessarily attract as much attention as other front-rowers around the country, he was an excellent performer for the Chiefs in his debut campaign last year and rarely puts a foot wrong.
4. Josh Lord
While the Crusaders certainly aren’t short-changed in the second row, it’s the Chiefs who will enter 2022 with the most capped locks amongst their contingent, with Brodie Retallick, Tupou Vaa’i and Josh Lord all representing NZ on the world stage last year.
Retallick, after shouldering a hefty workload, will likely be given an extra week to get his body right for Super Rugby Pacific, which should hand Josh Lord the first opportunity to wear the No 4 jersey in 2022.
Lord debuted for the Chiefs against the Crusaders last season and went on to make five starts throughout the year before earning a shock call-up to the All Blacks’ end-of-year tour. Opportunities were unsurprisingly rare up north for Lord and now the 21-year-old will want to justify the national coaches’ selection with an emphatic Super Rugby campaign.
5. Tupou Vaa’i
Like his young teammate, Tupou Vaa’i probably didn’t get quite as many opportunities in the black jersey last season as he would have hoped but it’s clear that Vaa’i’s time is on the horizon and a solid start to the year will help the 21-year-old gain some always-needed confidence.
Curiously, Vaa’i and Lord started last season wearing the No 4 and 5 jerseys, respectively, but swapped positions at the tail-end of the year.
Naitoa Ah-Kuoi has also been an excellent performer for the Chiefs over the past two seasons and is certainly deserving an opportunity of starting alongside either Lord or Vaa’i but after missing the entirety of the NPC last year, it’s difficult to gauge where his fitness is at.
6. Samipeni Finau
Last year, Clayton McMillan sprung an early-season surprise by naming temporary injury replacement Samipeni Finau to start on the blindside flank in the Chiefs’ opening game of the season (also against the Highlanders) ahead of permanent squad members like Kaylum Boshier and Simon Parker. With Finau earning his first full-time contract this season, don’t be surprised if McMillan makes a similar call for this season’s opener.
Finau was one of the key performers for Waikato during their title-winning NPC run last year, usually on the blindside flank, and will add some ever-useful additional height to the lineout, which has been an Achilles’ heel for the Chiefs at times over recent seasons.
7. Sam Cane
McMillan has already made it clear that there’s only one man who’s a guaranteed starter for the team this year, captain Sam Cane.
Cane missed the bulk of last year after suffering a pectoral injury in the Chiefs’ Round 4 clash with the Blues and made just a handful more professional appearances throughout the year. As such, the All Blacks captain has plenty to prove in 2022 and while no one should be doubting his capabilities, the likes of Ardie Savea, Dalton Papalii and Ethan Blackadder flourished in the test arena and have given Cane a target to work towards.
Expect Cane to be named in the No 7 jersey week-after-week.
8. Luke Jacobson
Luke Jacobson has spent so much time on the sidelines over the past few years that it’s hard to envisage McMillan not selecting the loose forward in his opening match trio if he’s fit and ready to go.
While Jacobson has received rave reviews over a number of seasons, 2021 was perhaps the first time the former Under 20s captain was able to clock up considerable minutes, and started at number 8 in all but two of the Chiefs’ games throughout their relatively successful campaign. Come the international calendar, it was no surprise to see Jacobson earn an All Blacks call-up for the first time since the 2019 World Cup and while he wouldn’t have featured in as many tests as he would have hoped, he’ll be even hungrier for success in 2022.
The other loose forward who will likely be in consideration for Round 1 is Pita Gus Sowakula, who had a strong season with Taranaki, but may be entrusted with using his power off the bench. Mitch Brown, meanwhile, isn’t expected to be fit for the opening rounds after undergoing minor surgery.
9. Brad Weber
While the Chiefs have two of the best up-and-coming halfbacks in New Zealand at their disposal in the forms of Xavier Roe and Cortez Ratima, the departure of Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi to the Crusaders means All Black Brad Weber is the only No 9 in the squad with any significant Super Rugby experience (Roe managed one start last year in his debut campaign as well as six further appearances off the bench).
Weber, as last year’s captain in the absence of Cane, is one of the most integral members of the squad and the Chiefs will be wanting to kick their campaign off with a bang, which likely means Weber’s understudies may have to wait before they get any starting action.
10. Bryn Gatland
The area of biggest contention for the Chiefs remains the crucial pivot position, with Bryn Gatland starting off the 2021 season as the first-choice playmaker before eventually ceding the role to Damian McKenzie.
Gatland quietly went about his business last year, leaving it to his flashier teammates to feature on the highlight reels, but was important for unlocking the Chiefs attack early in the season and was entrusted with the No 10 jersey for the Super Rugby Aotearoa final, where he was confident and composed.
The arrival of Josh Ioane does throw the cat amongst the pigeons and with Kaleb Trask and Rivez Reihana also options, the departure of McKenzie doesn’t really make this any easier a jersey to select. Gatland, however, as the most experience in the role – and that will prove crucial early in the season when players and teams are still feeling each other out.
11. Etene Nanai-Seturo
After travelling with the All Blacks Sevens to Tokyo last year, Etene Nanai-Seturo is now set for an uninterrupted season of 15-man footy where he’ll be looking to finally start delivering on the massive hype that’s followed the 22-year-old since New Zealand Rugby and the Warriors engaged in a tug-of-war back in 2018 over the outside back’s services.
For all his obvious talents, the quick-stepping Nanai-Seturo struggled to find any consistent form in 2021 before departing from the Chiefs following the climax of the Aotearoa season, where he’d ben an almost permanent fixture on the left wing.
Some see Nanai-Seturo as best suited for the fullback role and with Damian McKenzie offshore for the season, that could certainly eventuate this season – but the gut feeling is that he’ll kick off the year in the position where he’s earned the majority of his Super Rugby caps to date.
12. Quinn Tupaea
Quinn Tupaea was somewhat of a surprise call-up to the All Blacks last July but the young midfielder impressed in his limited chances in black and like many of his teammates, will be itching to regularly get back out on the park and showcase what he’s picked up in the test arena.
Although it certainly wouldn’t surprise to see Alex Nankivell given a run in the midfield after another strong season for Tasman, McMillan may favour getting his two All Blacks centres out on the park together as soon as possible to allow them plenty of time to bed in their combination for the year ahead.
13. Anton Lienert-Brown
Arguably the most consistent player in the All Blacks last year, Anton Lienert-Brown was understated at times throughout the season but found his best run of form towards the end of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman. While it would be unreasonable to expect a player to be red-hot throughout the year, it would bode well for the Chiefs if Lienert-Brown can find those impressive touches that make him so hard to defend earlier in the season, when the Chiefs come up against the top New Zealand sides.
As is the case with Tupaea, it would make sense for Lienert-Brown to be given ample opportunities early in the season to sort out his combinations with the inside and outside backs and with minor injuries limiting his minutes for the All Blacks in 2021, you suspect the 95-cap Chief has plenty of fuel in the tank.
14. Jonah Lowe
Despite entering the 2021 season with little fanfare, Hawke’s Bay’s Jonah Lowe was perhaps the most impressive winger for the Chiefs throughout the season, rarely putting a foot wrong and showing deceptive pace at various stages throughout the year to impress all and sundry. After some more solid performances for the Magpies at the end of the year, Lowe will enter the season in solid form and with the job ahead of him of cementing his spot in the line-up.
There are plenty of other options on the wings that Clayton McMillan could opt for, with utility back Gideon Wrampling one of the most promising up-and-comers in the competition, as well as the experienced Shaun Stevenson and new recruit Emoni Narawa – who you suspect will quickly get an opportunity in the back three after having precious few chances with the Blues over the past two seasons. It’s Lowe, however, who is arguably the incumbent in the jersey, and the man who you’d expect to put his best foot forward during the pre-season.
15. Kaleb Trask
The 10-15 combo was so crucial for the Chiefs last year and as always, there are plenty of possible puzzle pieces for Clayton McMillan to slot into the frame this season. That being said, it’s Bay of Plenty’s Kaleb Trask who looms as the most likely man to handle the fullback role for the Chiefs, at least early in the year.
With McKenzie overseas, the Chiefs have lost one of their key playmakers and McMillan may feel that instead of loading up Bryn Gatland with all the pressure of running the cutter, a dual playmaking strategy may best serve the time as they find their bearings in 2022. Perhaps if Josh Ioane weren’t so intent on wearing No 10, he’d be in line for some fullback duty but as it stands, 23-year-old Trask is perhaps the most likely man to don No 15 on 19 February.
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