2020 is shaping up as a mammoth year for the Chiefs’ new prodigy lock, Naitoa Ah Kuoi.
Ah Kuoi, who hails from Wellington, was one of the Chiefs’ surprise signings when the New Zealand Super Rugby squads were unveiled last month.
Four years in the Wellington College First XV, with appearances for both the New Zealand Barbarians and Secondary Schools teams in his final two years has kept Ah Kuoi on many a scout’s radar for a number of seasons.
Hip problems and a knee injury kept the promising second-rower from making his Mitre 10 Cup debut until earlier this year but it looks like things could be looking up for the exciting prospect.
As just one of four locks in the Chiefs squad, Ah Kuoi will be one of the men tasked with trying to replace Brodie Retallick – something which the All Blacks were so afraid of doing themselves, they risked playing an undercooked Retallick in the World Cup knockout stages.
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When Ah Kuoi first put pen to paper for the Chiefs earlier this year, however, he thought he might be lining up alongside Retallick.
“I didn’t actually know until I was coming up that [Retallick] was on a sabbatical,” Ah Kuoi told RugbyPass earlier this week.
“When I was signing here, I was excited to work with someone like him, but then got here and his absence was a bit of a bummer – but at the same time the other locks here are really professional, really good guys and really good players so learning off them is just as good.”
Retallick’s absence will be a major talking point for the Chiefs’ season ahead, but even last year the former World Rugby Player of the Year managed just nine appearances due to a combination of mandatory rests and injuries.
Allardice and Ardron, in particular, should have plenty of tips for the new Chief. Allardice stepped into the captaincy role for the Chiefs throughout the 2019 season while Ardron has featured at the last two World Cups for Canada.
Those two will likely form the Chiefs’ first-choice locking combination, but the long season ahead will almost certainly present chances for both Ah Kuoi and McWhannell to feature throughout the campaign.
McWhannell was a member of the full Chiefs squad last year but was side-lined through injury for the whole season.
Damian McKenzie's return from injury in 2020 will add plenty of firepower to an already scorching @ChiefsRugby backline. Where does the young playmaker fit in, asks @TomVinicombe.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 10, 2019
“When I first came in, the coaches talked to me and they spoke about Laggie [McWhannel] not playing throughout the whole year, but if you just persevere and stick through it, your shot might come,” said Ah Kuoi.
“Your shot might not come but just come to the Chiefs and learn and take every opportunity that comes your way.
“That’s the way I see it – it’s a great opportunity here. Any opportunity to get on the field would be nice, but at the same time I’ve got to work hard regardless of if I’m in the 23 or not.”
Given the Chiefs’ propensity for injuries in the last few season (in 2019, all four of the Chiefs’ original locks, Retallick, Allardice, McWhannell and Fin Hoeata, spent time on the sidelines, alongside the likes of Sam Cane, Damian McKenzie, Luke Jacobson and others), it wouldn’t be unreasonable if Ah Kuoi anticipated some game time falling into his lap.
He’s shut down that train of thought, however.
“You don’t really want someone to have to be injured for you to have a spot, you want everyone to be at the top of their game so that you’re at the top of your game and you can both compete at a high level when the time is right.”
While Ah Kuoi is willing to bide his time and wait for his opportunity to get on the park – and it would be unfair to label the 20-year-old as a star in the making – it wouldn’t be a major surprise to see the 1.96-metre giant clocking up some regular game time for the Chiefs.
Retallick came into his debut Super Rugby season in 2012 also as a 20-year-old and with just a dozen provincial games under his belt – one more than Ah Kuoi currently has.
In eight years of @SuperRugby with the Chiefs, Ian Foster failed to win any silverware. That on its own is a terrible metric of how Foster will perform as @AllBlacks coach, however, writes @TomVinicombe.https://t.co/ihbMZoELWX#SuperRugby @ChiefsRugby
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 12, 2019
Four months later, Retallick was starting in the second row for the All Blacks.
While the All Blacks is the obvious goal for any young rugby player in New Zealand, it’s not something that Ah Kuoi is concerned with right now.
“I just want to be a better player all-round,” Ah Kuoi said of his goals for the season. “There are definitely little things in my game I want to work on, but just soaking up the learnings and opportunities that I have is the main thing.
“Whether I play or not, that’s one thing, but if I continue to work hard and put my best foot forward then the opportunities will come.”
Still, it will be a strange feeling for Ah Kuoi when he does finally run out for the Chiefs, having spent his whole life coming through the Wellington and Hurricanes systems.
“My first day with the Chiefs was media day,” Ah Kuoi said. “It was weird just chucking on the Chiefs kits, walking around and seeing everyone else is in Chiefs gear – but it grows on you, I’m enjoying it!
“I was more of a Hurricanes guy growing up, so Jerry Collins, Rodney So’oialo – guys like that, I looked up to a lot.
“Coming here, it’s a bit different because I haven’t really watched the Chiefs play so I’m not really familiar with a lot of the guys who have been in the team for a while. I feel like it makes it a bit easier because I don’t feel as starstruck.
“In saying that, guys like Damian McKenzie, it’s been crazy being here and talking to them, them talking to me, us running around together. That’s cool.”
You do have to wonder how the Hurricanes have let Ah Kuoi slip through their fingers, especially given the lack of grunt in the second row has regularly been a major weakness for the side.
Still, one team’s loss is another’s gain, and the Chiefs will be hoping to capitalise on the newest talent that they’ve managed to lure north.
Ah Kuoi will be one of the first players from the 2017 New Zealand secondary schools side to make the transition to Super Rugby.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 5, 2019
Loose forward Devon Flanders, centre Quinn Tupaea, and wing Kini Naholo are all new Super Rugby signings for the upcoming season who played in the 2017 team that went undefeated throughout their short campaign.
Super Rugby, of course, is a massive step up from even the Mitre 10 Cup – which secondary school reps are not guaranteed to ever make the grade in.
Only time will tell if Naitoa Ah Kuoi has the potential to make a name for himself around New Zealand, as Brodie Retallick did during his debut Super Rugby season, but the mental strength, physical prowess and commitment is all there.
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