Colin Cooper’s first season in charge of the Chiefs was a real test of character.
An away quarterfinal against the rival Hurricanes proved a bridge too far for a side who were continuously knocked down over the course of a grueling regular season, only to get back up and keep fighting time and time again.
With his side’s year ending after a heartbreaking one-point loss against his former team, Cooper will reflect on what was an incredibly impressive season, all things considered. Despite an overhaul of personnel both on and off the field, the Chiefs finished just short of a semifinal berth and won just one fewer match than they did last season.
The depth and resolve of Cooper’s side was pushed to the limit early and often in 2018. Heading into the season, we knew it was going to be a different side after the Chiefs were hit by an overseas player drain – losing 100 caps of All Black experience to offshore clubs or retirements – but no one could have predicted the brutal injury toll the club would face.
The side found themselves without any of the props from their original 38-man squad after six weeks of competition, and were without leaders Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and Charlie Ngatai for stretches during the season (of the aforementioned three, Retallick was most impressive in 2018 and proves an invaluable member of the forward pack. The All Blacks lock scored a career-best six tries and won six penalties at the breakdown to lead his position).
Despite their overflowing injury ward, the Chiefs miraculously turned their perceived weaknesses into strengths, putting forth one of Super Rugby’s best scrums thanks in large part to their rag-tag front row, and getting the most out of overlooked backs like Sean Wainui.
The front row injury crisis led to key contributions from journeyman Angus Ta’avao – who led all props in minutes played – and helped unearth new All Black Karl Tu’inukuafe, whose story captured the imagination of club rugby battlers the world over. Both players were uncontracted at the start of the season.
Cooper’s faith in his former Taranaki talent paid off, with the aforementioned Wainui making himself a fixture in the starting lineup after injuries kept regulars Tim Nanai-Williams, Toni Pulu and Shaun Stevenson on the sidelines. Another player who started the season without a contract, Wainui finished his campaign tallying 14 appearances and scoring six tries – good for second on the team.
But the real storyline of the Chiefs season – and the narrative that grabbed the most headlines – was star fullback Damian McKenzie’s transition into the No. 10 jersey.
The slippery superstar shone in place of Aaron Cruden in his first full campaign at first-five eighth. McKenzie emerged as an elite playmaker, notching eight try assists and 22 line break assists in his 14 appearances.
He proved to be as dangerous as ever with ball in hand, leading his position in tries scored with six, run metres with 1141 – his nearest competitor managed 895 – line breaks (13), tackle busts (74) and offloads (18).
With time on his side, the 23-year-old is already an elite 10 and will only get better as his time in the saddle increases. Simple errors – including an early interception thrown to Julian Savea, instantly leading to a try – were what ultimately let the Chiefs down in their playoff exit, and the continued sharpening of McKenzie’s decision making as a playmaker will be what gets them over the hump next season.
Unfortunately for Cooper, the Chiefs are set to lose some major experience next season once again, with Charlie Ngatai (Lyon), Tim Nanai-Williams (Clermont), Dominic Bird (Racing 92) and Liam Messam (Toulon) all heading offshore to the Top 14.
With the impending departures of Ngatai and Johnny Fa’auli (Toshiba), the area that will be of greatest concern next year will be the midfield. The Chiefs will have to find someone else to pair with All Black Anton Lienert-Brown. Thankfully things are made slightly easier by the versatile Lienert-Brown’s ability to slide seamlessly between midfield positions.
Former All Black Ma’a Nonu – also a former Hurricane under Cooper – has emerged as a potential midfield option, but at 36 years old he only makes sense as a one-year stopgap.
The Chiefs could make do with what they have, and play either 22-year-old Wainui or 21-year-old Alex Nankivell in the midfield – both have extensive time there at the provincial level – or they could go even younger, with exciting prospects Quinn Tupaea and Bailyn Sullivan (both 19) coming through the grades. Tupaea is set to make his provincial debut for Waikato in August, while Sullivan made his Chiefs debut earlier this year. Other contracted midfielders Regan Verney and Levi Aumua remain untested at Super Rugby level.
Further young talent emerging for the Chiefs comes in the form of hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho, who impressed in his seven appearances, and 21-year-old flanker Luke Jacobson, who shapes as a long-term replacement for the departing Liam Messam in the back row.
The former New Zealand Under 20 captain Jacobson made 13 appearances in his debut season, including seven starts towards the tail end of the campaign. He scored three tries over a two-game stretch against the Crusaders and Highlanders.
The Chiefs player who had the brightest emergence in 2018 was fullback Solomon Alaimalo. The 22-year-old brings an elite combination of size and speed at nearly two metres tall, comparing physically with Wallabies star Israel Folau. He finished the season ranked second among all players in terms of run metres and scored a team-high eight tries. He also finished near the top of the competition in line breaks (19 – 5th overall) and tackle busts (69 – 3rd overall). Named Rookie of the Year by the club in 2017, Alaimalo’s performance makes him tough for international selectors to ignore moving forward. He will be a key piece for the Chiefs for the foreseeable future.
Overall, the future looks bright for this tough Chiefs team. Fielding a roster packed with both established and emerging stars, they will be extremely formidable once they return to their full complement and will be near the top of the New Zealand conference once again in 2019. Their ability to push further in the playoffs will depend on the continued development of Damian McKenzie and will be aided by week-to-week consistency.
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