As has become a Super Rugby tradition, the Chiefs will kick their new campaign off with a sizeable injury list when they welcome the Highlanders to a crowd-restricted stadium on Friday night.
All up, new head coach Clayton McMillan has eight players unavailable for this weekend’s match – props Atu Moli and Aidan Ross, lock Laghlan McWhannell, loosies Lachlan Boshier and Peter Gus Sowakula, and backs Kaleb Trask, Quinn Tupaea and Chase Tiatia.
Bryn Gatland – whose background is well known – has been handed the first shot in the No 10 jersey and will partner new co-captain Brad Weber. There’s no first five replacement on the bench either, with McMillan confirming that Damian McKenzie, who has been named at fullback, will slot in at first receiver throughout the season – including, potentially, on Friday night.
“We gave him a few minutes [at first five] in the pre-season and he went well but we’ve also got other 10s that we probably see as starting 10s,” McMillan said.
“The question that we probably have to ask ourselves on a weekly basis is, ‘Do we have space for, effectively, two starting 10s and a 15 who can also play 10 in our matchday 23?’ Clearly this week we’ve gone with [Gatland and McKenzie]. I’d expect Damian to be out there at some stage.”
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Waikato’s Xavier Roe has beaten out two-test All Blacks Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi for the bench halfback spot and is one of two Super Rugby debutants named in the side.
With Peter Gus Sowakula and Lachlan Boshier both nursing injuries, there was always going to be room for a big mover in the loose forwards and that comes in the form of Samipeni Finau – who has beaten out the likes of Kaylum Boshier and Simon Parker to wear the No 6 jersey – despite not being a full-time member of the squad.
Debutant Finau is joined by All Blacks captain Sam Cane and an injury-free Luke Jacobson, who will pack down at the back of the scrum.
In the tight five, Samisoni Taukei’aho has won the battle for the starting hooker berth ahead of Bradley Slater and returning All Black Nathan Harris. With a handful of minutes of Super Rugby pre-season the only rugby under his belt for over a year, Harris was always a long-shot to make the match-day 23 but will no doubt have plenty of opportunities to present his case as the season progresses.
Taukei’aho will slot in alongside 2018 All Blacks tourist Reuben O’Neill and Chiefs debutant Sione Mafileo in the front row while Tupou Vaa’i and Naitoa Ah Kuoi will lock the scrum.
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Another first-time Chief, Jonah Lowe, will start on the right wing while Etene Nanai-Seturo has been named on the left. The biggest surprise in the backs comes in the form of Sean Wainui’s selection in the midfield.
Coming up through the age-grades, Wainui was a centre first and foremost and still plays there for Taranaki, but has spent almost his entire Chiefs career on the wing. McMillan was full of praise for Wainui following the squad announcement, however, …
Wainui will partner All Black Anton Lienert-Brown.
There’s plenty of experience on the bench in the form of Slater, Angus Ta’avao, Mitchell Brown, Mitch Karpik, Alex Nankivell and Shaun Stevenson while one of last year’s debutants, Ollie Norris, is also set for a run.
Despite the sizeable injury list, McMillan is more focused on the depth that the Chiefs have and the hard decision that were needed for the first team selection of his tenure as head coach.
“We’ve got a lot of fit bodies at the moment and everybody’s worked extremely hard over the pre-season to earn an opportunity to start,” he said. “One of the stink things, I think, about being a coach, is that you have to let some people down on a weekly basis that have done nothing wrong and probably deserve selection but are just sitting in behind others that are just slightly ahead. So not an easy decision, but we’re really happy with the squad that we’ve selected.
“There are some experienced guys sitting on the bench that could quite easily have started but we see value in the skillset they bring and that experience coming off the bench, we think will be really valuable.”
Friday’s match kicks off at 7:05pm NZT from Waikato Stadium. All the action will be streamed live on RugbyPass for subscribers in the UK, Ireland, France and other major territories who have purchased a Super Rugby Aotearoa season pass.
Chiefs: Damian McKenzie, Jonah Lowe, Sean Wainui, Anton Lienert-Brown, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Bryn Gatland, Brad Weber (cc), Luke Jacobson, Sam Cane (cc), Samipeni Finau, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, Tupou Vaa’i, Sione Mafileo, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Reuben O’Neill. Reserves: Bradley Slater, Oliver Norris, Angus Ta’avao, Mitchell Brown, Mitch Karpik, Xavier Roe, Alex Nankivell, Shaun Stevenson.
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